Kids and teenagers spend a lot of time outdoors – for most of us, half of our exposure to UV rays happens before the age of 20.Just one blistering sunburn in childhood can double your child’s chances of developing melanoma as an adult.
But did you know that melanoma affects approximately 300 children in the U.S. each year?
According to the Dana-Farber Institute, while melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer in adults, skin cancer in children is almost always melanoma. The biggest increase in melanoma incidences has been reported in girls ages 15-19, possibly because girls are more likely than boys to sunbathe and use tanning beds. Because melanoma often appears differently in children than in adults, doctors and parents sometimes overlook it or misdiagnose it as a different skin problem.
What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma in children?
While melanomas in adults tend to turn darker, in children they often are whitish, yellowish or red and may be misdiagnosed as warts. Apply the same “ABCDE rule” used for adults when checking your child’s skin for moles, except remember that the color may be lighter rather than darker (see image below). If you notice any changes to your child’s skin or moles, it is important to have your child’s pediatrician take a look at it.
What are the risk factors for childhood melanoma?
Similar to adults, children are most at risk for melanoma if they have:
- Fair skin
- A history of many blistering sunburns
- Several large or many small moles
- A family history of unusual moles
- A family history of melanoma
Children at high risk should be seen by a pediatric dermatologist annually. Also, remember that melanoma can occur in places not exposed to the sun, so be sure to have your child’s scalp, feet, hands and buttocks evaluated.
How is childhood melanoma treated?
Once correctly diagnosed, treatment options for melanoma in children are similar to treatments for adults and may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Children and adolescents with melanoma typically fare well with treatment; the overall five-year survival rate is 90 percent.The earlier it’s caught, the more treatable it is.
How can childhood skin cancer be prevented?
Follow the same sun safety guidelines for adults to prevent skin cancer in children. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 any time your child will be spending time outdoors. This includes making sure they are protected during recess and other outdoor activities at school as well as in the summertime. Make sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming. Dress your child in protective clothing made with a tight weave and in darker colors, and add a hat to protect their face. Many swimsuits for children are now made with built-in SPFs and rashguard style tops offer more coverage for long days at the pool, lake or beach. Don’t forget sunglasses to also protect your child’s eyes when outdoors for extended periods.
For adolescents and older teens, do not allow them use tanning beds. Tanning bed use in the teenage years and early adulthood has been shown to increase the chances of melanoma by 75 percent. Many states are banning tanning bed use by anyone under 18, but this law has not been passed nationwide, so it is up the parent to remain vigilant about not allowing tanning bed use.
While melanoma in children is rare, know the risks and practice sun safety to keep your child and teen protected.