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Expert advises people to stay aware of skin cancer

WASHINGTON — May is the time when we all head back to the beach or pool. It is also, fittingly enough, Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Though May will be leaving us soon, the need for skin cancer awareness will remain throughout the sunny months.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and one type can be especially deadly — melanoma.

“In the United States, there are about 80,000 diagnoses of melanoma each year and about 9,000 deaths,” says Dr. Michael Atkins, deputy director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He says the incidence of melanoma are growing faster than any other type of cancer, and that is especially true among young women. Melanoma is the number one cause of cancer deaths in women ages 25-30, and second for women ages 30-35.

The increase is largely due to increased UV light exposure, including the rise in the use of tanning beds.

Unlike other forms of skin cancer — such as basal cell carcinoma, which tends to be very localized — melanomas have the ability to metastasize or spread,  to distant parts of the body.

“Up until recently, that type of spread was considered very lethal,” says Atkins, who is also an oncologist with the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

But he says that is changing due to the evolution of new immunotherapy techniques to fight the disease. Researchers are developing drugs that, in essence, boost the immune system to attack the melanoma cells.

Melanoma  typically grows unchecked because the tumors have the ability to put the brakes on the immune system. These drugs lift the errant signals, allowing the immune system to do its job.

Atkins has been using these drugs on his patients with amazing results and believes immunotherapy may ultimately revolutionize treatment for all kinds of cancers.

“It looks like what we are seeing in melanoma will be translatable to other cancers,” he says, noting the technique is already being used in lung cancer patients. He says within the next two years, he expects its use will be even more widespread.

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