More than skin deep! How to prevent and identify melanoma

The body’s largest organ needs care and attention, even in cloudy Seattle

The skin is the largest organ in the body, but it’s often overlooked. The sun is one of the greatest threats to our skin’s health, but in Seattle it’s often ignored.

“One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70, which is typically caused by UV exposure. But because we live in lovely, cloudy Seattle, many people protect themselves only when it’s sunny, when really we should all be using sunscreen on a daily basis,” says Dr. Melinda Liu, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist with Pacific Medical Centers (PacMed).

Most skin cancer appears later in life, but it’s important to start sun protective behaviors early due to the cumulative effects of UV damage:

  • Use sunscreen that is broad spectrum and SPF 30 or higher.
  • Wear clothing (including long sleeves, hat with wide brim and tight weave, and pants) made of UV-protective fabric.
  • Avoid sun exposure when the UV index is high (typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).

“Luckily in our area, we typically don’t have a high UV index; however, it’s important to remember that up to 80 percent of UV can still come through on a cloudy day. And if your skin is exposed through the window at your office or in your car, you’re still at risk,” Dr. Liu says.

“I feel passionate about this topic because sun protection can make a big positive impact on the lives of my patients and their loved ones. I’ve identified skin cancer on patients who mostly work outside, like in the construction or pavement industries, which means a lot of exposure to reflected UV light. We went over sun protection best practices, and they later told me they were spreading the word among coworkers — I love those success stories!”

The Ugly Duckling and your ABC’s

Dr. Liu says we should see a dermatologist annually for a check-up, along with your yearly visit to your primary care provider.

“Dermatological health doesn’t stop at the door of your medical office. I want everyone to learn the signs of melanoma, and to speak up if they notice anything on themselves or a loved one,” Dr. Liu says.

Use the ABCDE’s of melanoma to help determine if a mole or spot should be assessed by a doctor.

  • Asymmetry: When one half looks different from the other.
  • Border: Blurry or jagged edges.
  • Color: When a mole or spot contains more than one shade or color.
  • Diameter: Melanoma is typically greater than six millimeters, or about the size of a pencil.
  • Evolution: Melanoma tends to change its appearance over time, while healthy spots remain the same.

“The ABCDE’s are a lot to remember, so I also like to use the idea of the ugly duckling, from the popular children’s story. If you have any spot of skin that looks different from the rest, get it checked out,” Dr. Liu says. “Be familiar with the constellation of moles and spots on your body, and then take action if something starts to look different.”

Dermatologists offer health, and confidence

Skin cancer isn’t Dr. Liu’s only concern. The health of our skin is connected to our greater well-being.

“Sometimes internal conditions manifest on the skin. A patient may come to my office because of itchy skin, and after looking at their lab work, their discomfort can alert us to a potentially serious internal disease. It’s important to have a connection between your dermatologist and primary care team. I enjoy working with other providers to help tie together all the body’s systems and provide excellent patient care.”

Dr. Liu also helps patients with acne, which is not only painful, but can also affect a patient’s mental health.

“We shouldn’t discount the effects that some skin issues can have on how you feel and your self-esteem. It’s really special to help a patient with cystic acne and see how happy and confident they are after treatment.”

Dr. Melinda Liu is accepting new patients at PacMed Renton, and PacMed First Hill in Seattle. To make an appointment, call 1-888-472-2633 or visit pacificmedicalcenters.org.

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