Battling the deadliest form of skin cancer

At the age of 25, Hillary Fogelson did not know that she would soon have cancer. Fogelson is a melanoma survivor who was just diagnosed with the cancer for the third time last summer. She now makes it her mission to inform the public about the dangers of overexposure to the sun and ultraviolet rays through her organization Pale Girl SPEAKS.

Melanoma is the “most dangerous form of skin cancer,” and out of all cancers, skin cancer is the most common, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“From 1970 to 2009, the incidence of melanoma increased by eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men,” states a recent study by the Mayo Clinic.

When Fogelson first discovered that she had melanoma, she documented that year in her life as a way to cope with the stress and collect her thoughts. She then published those thoughts in a book entitled “Pale Girl SPEAKS: A Year Uncovered.”

“I want[ed] to know everything there [was] to know,” says Fogelson. “I want[ed] to know that I [could] make educated and informed decisions. I was in a place where it was difficult to meet people who were going through what I was going through, let alone people my age.”

Melanoma occurs in the cells in the skin that produce pigmentation, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Approximately 70 percent of these cancers arise from normal-appearing skin, while the remaining 30 percent arise from an existing mole,” states the Mayo Clinic.

Existing moles that change in color, shape or size, or those that begin swelling or bleeding, should not be ignored, according to the Mayo Clinic, as these changes could be signs of melanoma, which could spread into deeper layers of the skin and ultimately into the organs.

Although vitamin D deficiencies are sometimes associated with a lack of sun exposure,  doctors do not recommend direct exposure to sunlight for extended periods of time.

“Not much [sun] is really recommended,” says Kasey Drapeau-D’Amato, a physician’s assistant at the Santa Monica Dermatology Medical Group. “People should really avoid direct sun exposure. All sun exposure leads to damage of the skin and potential skin diseases. You really don’t want to get sun, especially during 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest.”

D’Amato says that tanning lotions with an SPF of 30 or higher are recommended during sun exposure.

“A person should apply about the size of a golf ball for the entire body,” says D’Amato. “It should be reapplied after swimming or sweating almost immediately.”

Fogelson believes that it is important to begin safe sun practices with young children.

“With [my kids], we get dressed, brush our teeth, and put on sunscreen every morning,” she says. “My girls are very fair, so when they go swimming, I give them long sleeve rash guards to wear. It’s important for them to know, not in a scary way, but to have the knowledge to protect themselves.”

Fogelson, who infrequently used tanning beds throughout high school and college, believes that tanning beds are harmful to young people.

“Tanning beds have UV lighting, and it’s damaging to the skin,” says D’Amato. “It exposes the skin to radiation, causing cells to change, and can potentially affect existing moles. Any UV radiation exposure is damaging to the skin.”

According to the SCF, ultraviolet radiation is a proven human carcinogen. A media report from the International Agency for the Research on Cancer states that melanoma risk is 75 percent higher when ultraviolet tanning beds are used before age 30.

Tanning lotions and instant spray tans are methods of obtaining a “summer glow” without ultraviolet radiation exposure. Jergens offers a line of lotions that give skin a “natural glow.”

“The great thing now is that there are so many alternatives, such as spray tans, and other options,” says Fogelson. “The spray tans are quick, easy and look more natural, as opposed to tanning beds, which I think don’t look as great, giving you that orangey-reddish color.”

Treatments for melanoma include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and experimental procedures such as immunotherapy, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The SCF states that the survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent if caught early, but only 15 percent if the cancer has progressed. Melanoma can often be effectively removed by surgical excision if detected before it has spread, according to D’Amato.

“There still isn’t a cure for melanoma, but there are some medications that have recently become approved to help aggressive stages of it,” says D’Amato. “Melanoma can be deadly, but now with some of the newer treatments, people are becoming more aware and getting checked more often.”

Fogelson continues to spread her advice about sun protection through social media, offering product and clothing suggestions on Twitter. To her, education and prevention is key.

D’Amato recommends that people get checked at least once a year.

“If someone gets a lot of sun exposure, then it should be at least twice a year,” D’Amato says. “If there is a history of melanoma in family genetics, or if there appear to be unusual moles, those people should get checked every three to four months.”

May is melanoma awareness month, and Fogelson hosted the Miles for Melanoma at Universal Studios event with the Melanoma Research Foundation on Sunday.