For melanoma survivors, May 5 holds special significance

"After my second melanoma, I decided that I had to take this terrible experience and turn it into something positive and get the message out to young people, and anyone else who needs to know the truth about the disease," says Timna Understein, a blogger and two-time melanoma survivor. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

WASHINGTON — On Cinco de Mayo, many of us think about margaritas in the sun.

But for melanoma survivors, May 5 has a much deeper meaning.

It is Melanoma Monday, a day set aside to draw awareness to the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that, on average, one American dies from melanoma every hour. That equals 9,719 deaths in 2014 alone.

“It is a cancer that begins in your skin, but can spread quickly to your organs,” says Timna Understein, a two-time melanoma survivor behind the blog Respect the Rays.

That’s why it’s so important to detect melanoma early, before it has a chance to circulate.

“Once it gets to other body organs, it is almost incurable,” says Dr. Andrea Morris, a dermatologist with the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates and an assistant professor of dermatology and internal medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Morris says the telltale signs include changing moles.

“One may have had a mole for many years, but if it is changing color or growing in size or bleeding, that is something to have checked,” she says.

New moles should also get a good look from a dermatologist. And while some patients have a family history of skin cancer, most melanomas are linked to exposure to the sun.

“The most important thing is to protect the skin from UV light,” says Morris, noting that those rays can get through to the ground even on a cloudy day.

She says it’s important to use an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every day, and anyone who spends extended time outdoors needs to reapply the cream every two hours.

Understein says titanium-based and mineral-based sunscreens are the best. She also recommends clothing that is infused with sun protection, and sunglasses and hats to keep dangerous rays out of the eyes.

Understein says she ignored similar advice when she was young, and has the scars to prove it.

“After my second melanoma, I decided that I had to take this terrible experience and turn it into something positive and get the message out to young people, and anyone else who needs to know the truth about the disease,” Understein says.

Her blog and Facebook page have proven popular, and Understein appears comfortable reaching out and spreading the word about the dangers of sun-worshiping.

But like many young people, she once thought she was invincible. Still, “this is not something you want to mess around with,” Understein says.

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