Skin cancer is one of the most preventable types of malignancy. But according to the cancer society, it is also one of the fastest increasing malignancies. For instance, the incidence of new cases is now greater than the combined number of new breast, lung, prostate and colon cancers.
Ask most authorities why this is happening and they’ll say it’s because of too much exposure to the sun.
Dr. Allan Halpern, chief of dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, warns parents that children who get sunburns at an early age, the severe ones they never forget, are at greater risk. So are those who have worked outdoors for a number of years.
Halpern adds that people who have 50 or more moles on their body are also at greater risk of developing melanoma. And the risk increases if you have red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or tend to burn easily. It’s also safer to not have freckles.
The male "macho image," or the thought, "It won’t happen to me," means men are at a greater risk than women. Men spend more time outside, and are less likely to use clothing protection or sunscreen.
So melanoma experts say we should listen to Rudyard Kipling’s advice to prevent skin cancer. "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun," the English novelist wrote.
But the problem isn’t so easily solved when doctors look at a mole and wonder, "Is it benign or malignant?" Sometimes the answer is as easy as rolling off a log, as the appearance is dramatic. But by that time, the malignancy may have already spread.
Remember, melanomas come in a variety of colours. Some are black and darker around the outside. Others contain a mixture of colours — white, purple, blue or red.
Nearly all dangerous moles have irregular or indefinite margins. Most are larger than the rubber end of a pencil. And a red light should flash if a mole becomes itchy, grows larger or bleeds.
A good treatment approach is the old surgical maxim, "When in doubt, cut it out." This would save some lives, particularly when it’s easy to miss this important diagnosis. One study showed that plastic surgeons, surgeons and even dermatologists missed the diagnosis of melanoma in 35 per cent of cases.
Harry Truman, the straight-talking former president of the United States, once remarked, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."
Today, we could add that, "If you want to get an early diagnosis of a melanoma, forget the Harvard Medical School graduate — consult a dog."
In 1989, the British journal "Lancet" reported that a female half-border collie was a woman’s best friend. Her dog kept sniffing at a mole on her thigh, but ignored other moles. In fact, amazingly, the dog once tried to bite off the mole when she was wearing shorts. Fortunately she consulted her doctor, the mole was excised and the diagnosis confirmed a malignant melanoma.
So what makes dogs so intelligent? A dog’s nose has 220 million cells to detect odours compared to our mere five million cells.
Dr. Larry Meyers, associate professor at the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Ala., has been testing the smelling capabilities of 4,000 dogs for more than 20 years. He says their smell is so sensitive that they can detect either a single chemical or a combination of them.
Meyers shoots down a common myth that only bloodhounds track down criminals. He says he has tested miniature poodles who could give bloodhounds a run for their money.
So if you have a mole and know a dog trained in melanoma detection, forget the dermatologist. In one study, tissue samples of excised melanoma were obtained from two hospitals. A schnauzer dog who had been trained to detect melanoma was able to differentiate them 99 per cent of the time!
Since most of us don’t own a trained schnauzer, it’s prudent to do an annual check of your body for moles. And if ever in doubt, have it cut out.
» Dr. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of The University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. He took post-graduate training in surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, McGill University in Montreal and Harvard. During his medical training he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon. His medical column is published by 70 Canadian newspapers, several in the U.S. and the Epoch Times which has editions in a number of European countries.