Former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres knew the mole on the back of her knee had been growing for some time and didn’t look quite right.
At the urging of her fiancé, Torres eventually got it checked out. She was diagnosed with melanoma and underwent her second surgery Jan. 29 to remove nearby lymph nodes, she revealed in an Instagram post on Feb. 5.
“I have been diagnosed with skin cancer 'melanoma' from a big spot/mole I never paid attention to, even though it was new, it had been growing for years and had an uneven surface," she wrote.
Her story is a common one for melanoma patients, said Dr. Bruce Haughey, a head and neck cancer surgeon who practices at AdventHealth Celebration. He said knowing the warning signs of melanoma is the best way to be prepared to catch it as early as possible.
“Especially for those who’ve had skin cancer before, a total body skin check is a very good way to catch skin cancer early,” he said.
Melanoma isn’t the most common form of skin cancer — it accounts for roughly one in 100 skin cancer diagnoses in the U.S. per year — but it’s by far the most deadly.
If it’s caught early, before it spreads to other parts of the body, the vast majority of people with melanoma survive it. If it’s not caught until after it spreads, only about one in five live for five years after their diagnosis.
In other words, catching it early is critical, a lesson Torres has learned. She wrote, “I had no idea skin cancer could spread anywhere else in your body.”
One advantage you have with melanoma is that it grows in plain sight. If you know what to look for, you can catch melanoma early.
The 5 Melanoma Warning Signs
It can be hard to tell the difference between melanoma and a normal mole. But there are five easy-to-remember warnings signs, called the ABCDE rule. Look for moles with these features:
- A for Asymmetry: A mole that doesn’t look the same on both sides.
- B for Border: The edges of the mole are not even, and it may have a ragged border.
- C for Color: The mole contains different colors, including different shades of brown and black. It may have patches of red, white, blue or pink.
- D for Diameter: The mole is longer than about one-fourth of an inch from end to end, about the size of a pencil eraser. But they may be smaller, especially at first.
- E for Evolving: The mole is getting larger or changing in shape or color. New symptoms, like itching or bleeding, can also be dangerous.
The ABCDE rule is a guide to spotting problem moles, not a list of every possible melanoma type. In general, the most important warning sign is a new spot on the skin or one that changes over time.
Dr. Haughey said if you’re not sure whether a mole has changed, it’s OK to wait three weeks or so to see if it looks any different. Torres wrote her mole had been “growing for years” before she had it checked out.
“If you see something or feel something different in your body have it checked,” she wrote.
Melanoma is commonly seen on the areas most exposed to the sun — like the ears, neck and face — but it can appear in out-of-the-way places, too. That can include inside the mouth and nose, on the bottom of a foot or under toenails. Torres’ cancer appeared on the back of her knee.
Because sunlight can bounce off water and sand, people who spend a lot of time on the ocean are more likely to see cancer develop in unusual places, like the underside of the head, Dr. Haughey said.
People with a history of severe childhood sunburn are most at risk for melanoma, he said.
Melanoma is most common in lighter-skinned people because they lack the skin-coloring pigment that protects skin from cancer and other damage. Australia and New Zealand, where Dr. Haughey is from, have the highest rates of melanoma in the world because of their high numbers of Caucasian residents and a hole in the ozone layer above the region.
There are effective ways to prevent melanoma, too.
Sun Safety Can Prevent Melanoma
As it is for other forms of skin cancer, too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays is the number one cause of melanoma, Dr. Haughey says.
“Other factors, like family history of skin cancer, can play a role, but wearing sunscreen and sun-protective clothing is the best way to lower your risk of melanoma,” he said.
Dr. Haughey, who specializes in cancers of the face and neck area, says a wide-brimmed hat is far superior to a baseball cap, which leaves most of the head uncovered. Even so, protective clothing can’t block all UV rays, so sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher is recommended.
Treatment of melanoma typically starts with surgery to remove all of the cancer cells at the initial site, with follow-up testing to see if it’s spread to nearby or “sentinel” lymph nodes. Torres wrote that doctors had removed two lymph nodes in the top of her leg where the cancer had already spread.
“Hoping it has not spread to any more areas or organs,” she wrote.
Dr. Haughey and his colleagues at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute collaborate with specialists throughout the AdventHealth Cancer Institute network to provide comprehensive cancer care — as well as hope — for many forms and stages of cancer, including melanoma. The team is focused on supporting their patients through the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges that cancer can pose.