Women in their 20s increasingly at risk for melanoma skin cancer

WAUWATOSA (WITI) -- A potentially deadly disease is rapidly affecting young women. Doctors have said women in their 20s are becoming increasingly at risk for melanoma -- an aggressive form of skin cancer.

“Being a young person, a diagnosis like this can really throw you off. It’s not something you expect to happen. It can happen to anyone. I was diagnosed with melanoma when I was 20 years old," Kristen Cercone said.

Dermatologists like Dr. Kathleen Stokes say there’s a certain age group of women who are at the highest risk for melanoma skin cancer.

“In that 20-year-old to 29-year-old female, they actually get diagnosed with melanoma more frequently than men in that age group," Dr. Stokes said.

But what makes the difference in terms of prognosis is how early it’s detected. Cercone battled skin cancer while she was just a junior in college.

“It really just started out I had this mole on my face. I always had it. I noticed it more, I noticed it was bigger so I just decided I didn’t like it,” Cercone said.

The dermatologist removed it, then gave her news that changed her life.

“Within a few days she was on the phone, calling me, saying it was melanoma, we need to get you in to see a surgeon, so it all happened very quickly, very unexpected, hard at first. It was scary," Cercone said.

Cercone had surgery to remove the mole, as well as a wide area around it, but that wasn’t all that doctors found.

“For me it had begun to spread. So after the first surgery I had to have a second one and that was to remove all the lymph nodes in that region,” Cercone said.

Two surgeries and a scar later, Cercone couldn’t help but wonder what the cause was.

“They never give you an exact insight, but obviously I’m very pale and my parents were always really great about sun protection, but there were plenty of times when I was a teenager when I didn’t want to put on my sunscreen and I got some bad burns," Cercone said.

Dr. Stokes said a majority of your sun exposure occurs  before you turn 18, but there are many factors that can increase the risk of melanoma.

“We know that it’s fair skin, how much sun you’ve had, how many sun burns, do you have blistering sun burns and tanning bed use. There’s no such thing as safe rays," Dr. Stokes said.

Dr. Amy Harker-Murray is an oncologist at Froedtert & The Medical College. She says there are exciting advances in the treatment of metastatic melanoma or melanoma that has spread.

“These drugs do everything. Some of them work on the immune system to try to get your body to do a better job in fighting the melanoma cells. Other of the approved drugs work on communication within the cancer cells trying to shut down that abnormal communication that lets the cells grow unchecked and uncontrolled,” Dr. Harker-Murray said.

Research shows overall, there’s more than 123,000 new cases of melanoma each year. This growing trend involving women is disturbing for many reasons.

“If this trend continues where we’re seeing more women diagnosed at a younger age, then it really makes us concerned as to how many cases we are going to see in 50 years when those women are in their 70s," Dr. Harker-Murray said.

Fortunately, Cercone caught her cancer early and it is now in remission.

“It’s something I dealt with. I didn’t let it stop me from doing the things I wanted to do,” Cercone said.

Rather it helped her find a new purpose in life.

"I turned my life in a different direction and applied for medical school and I’m a student at the Medical College now," Cercone said.

Now, she uses her experience as a way to help others.

“You have to be careful and protecting your skin is such an easy way to keep it healthy,” Cercone said.

It’s vital to catch melanoma early. So here’s the rule of thumb when doing a self examination. These are the A,B,C,D and E’s of melanoma.

Asymmetry: if one half is unlike the other half.

If the border is irregular or uneven.

Look to see if the color varies.

Check the diameter. Melanomas are usually larger in diameter than the size of the eraser on your pencil, but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected.

Evolving or changing in shape and elevation.