In recent years one type of skin cancer has received particular attention due to one person in particular. Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States of America, brought melanoma into the public eye when he announced that doctors were treating him for several metastasized “spots on his brain”. Thankfully, soon after treatment Mr. Carter announced to the world that his cancer was in remission.
What is melanoma? Melanoma is a skin cancer that affects the cells that produce color, also known as melanocytes. Scientists are showing that overexposure to the sun causes changes in the DNA of melanocytes leading to tumors on the skin. Some may think that because melanoma is on our skin it would be the easiest of cancers to spot. However, a melanoma is often hidden amongst the healthy moles on our body, allowing this menacing mole to go undiagnosed until it spreads to other parts of the body. Once melanoma has metastasized, treatment options can become limited.
But, let’s return to the successful case of Jimmy Carter. As described in the media, his treatment was a combination of the three pillars of cancer treatment: radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. One part of the chemotherapy is the drug called Keytruda, also known as pembrolizumab. The drug is an example of new immunotherapies, called antibodies, which recognize specific targets in your body. When they find their target, they turn on immune cells to identify and destroy cancer cells. It is one example of a growing number of treatments that are based on helping our immune systems recognize cancer. As the number of antibody treatments increase, successful cases like this one are on the rise. Mr. Carter’s personal triumph over cancer emphasizes the need for effective diagnosis and aggressive treatment.
In addition to diagnosis and treatment, there are several important things that we can do every day to help prevent melanoma. We know that melanoma and other skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun. The Canadian Cancer Society has recently released guidelines for good sun practice. In order they are: check UV (stay out of the sun between 11-3 when UV is 3 or higher), seek shade, cover up (clothes, hat, sunglasses), and wear sunscreen (broad spectrum, SPF of 30). For more information check out this page from the Canadian Cancer Society. In general, cancer prevention should also include quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, moderate exercise and a healthy diet. Just remember: in the the hot days of summer when we play sports and picnic outdoors, it’s incredibly important to stay safe while enjoying the sun.
This article was written by Dr. Martin Smith. Dr. Smith completed his PhD at the University of Waterloo studying how proteins can cause cancer. He currently works for the Ontario Brain Institute where he studies brain disease. To learn more about Dr. Smith and his research check out our members page.