Although skin cancer isn’t as common in children as it is in adults, doctors are seeing more cases of melanoma in pediatric patients. Statistics show that the number of cases of this potentially life-threatening skin cancer in children increased by approximately 2 percent each year from 1973 to 2009.
Melanoma can develop on any area of the skin, especially those areas that get a lot of sun exposure. But if not diagnosed early, the cancer can spread to other parts of the body. That’s why it’s important to develop skin cancer awareness and note any changes in your child’s skin.
What Research Shows
While childhood melanomas are rare, this form of skin cancer is responsible for as many as 3 percent of all pediatric cancers. But diagnosis doesn’t always come early since many parents don’t realize that children can get skin cancer. When the cancer goes undetected for too long, it can spread quickly.
One long-term study showed that the highest increase in melanoma rates in children were seen in adolescents-particularly girls-between the ages of 15 and 19. The cause of the increase is not known for certain, but researchers speculate that excessive sun exposure and ultraviolet light from tanning booths likely play roles.
Whatever the reason for melanoma rates rising in children, boys seem to develop melanomas more often on the face and trunk-either on the chest or back. Melanomas in girls usually occur on the lower legs but can also develop on the face and neck.
Like adults, risk factors for childhood melanoma include family history of the cancer, blistering sunburns, a weakened immune system, and large, irregular, or numerous moles on the body. Although children with darker skin tones can get skin cancer too, children with light-colored eyes and hair and fair skin that sunburns easily are at increased risk of developing melanoma.
If your child has a mole that bleeds or changes in color or size, it’s important to make an appointment with a dermatologist. A mole or small lesion with an irregular border and varying colors may be a sign of melanoma.
Other warning signs include an open wound that doesn’t heal, a brown spot-including a freckle-on the skin that gets thicker or changes in texture, or any skin growth that increases in size. Even if a mole doesn’t change in size or shape, any mole that looks different from your child’s other moles may be a sign of skin cancer. While some skin cancers are painless, others may itch, hurt, ooze, or scab.
Since skin cancer can also develop on areas of the skin that aren’t usually exposed to the sun, you should regularly examine your child for skin irregularities on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Check for dark spots under his or her fingernails and toenails as well.
If detected at an early stage before the cancer has spread beyond the top layer of skin, doctors can usually treat melanoma successfully. But in cases where the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, more aggressive treatment is required and may lead to complications such as infection, scarring, or nerve damage.
On the more positive side, research shows that although metastases to the lymph nodes occurs more often in children than in adults in the same cancer stage, with aggressive treatment, the survival rate for children is better. Treatment may include radiation, surgery, and drug treatment.
Even when there is no longer evidence of cancer following treatment, the disease can recur at any time. Therefore, careful watchfulness and regular follow-up exams are essential.
If you worry that changes to your child’s skin may be signs of melanoma, the health care professionals at Asheboro Dermatology & Skin Surgery Center can conduct the necessary examination and diagnostic testing to determine whether skin cancer is the cause.