We asked Dr. Dennis Gross, a Manhattan dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon, for a refresher on skin cancer, specifically melanoma, and for insight on a new drug called Yervoy from Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. approved to fight it.
"It's a highly malignant cancer of the cells in the skin responsible for pigmentation. That's why it appears as an irregular black long jagged mole. It has the ability to spread to organs other than the skin, such as the lungs, brain and liver -- making it potentially deadly," Dr. Gross explained.
Yervoy, the first drug approved by the FDA to treat melanoma, "triggers the cancer patient's own immune system to make antibodies that attack and kill the melanoma cancer cells," said Gross.
"In the study, people with advanced melanoma were determined to benefit. Those individuals already had the melanoma cancer cells spread to other vital organs, which put their life in jeopardy. And the drug was shown to extend these individuals' life span approximately three months," explained Gross.
Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City, added, "There's no other treatment to give patients with metastatic melanoma. It could be great used in combination with other medications that are being researched. Hitting the cancer cells with two drugs can be synergistic. Since we haven't had many breakthroughs with melanoma, this is hopeful and will raise awareness about the cancer in general."
While the approval of Yervoy may not be anything close to a cure, we asked a melanoma survivor for a different perspective on the development. Linda Babitt, a 51-year-old woman living in South Florida, is a stage 1 melanoma survivor approaching her one-year check up.
"When you are in the position of having cancer and don't want to give up the battle against it, I can imagine that I'd be all for the new melanoma drug. Any advancement is a good thing. I hope to see more of it. The biggest issue is that skin cancer needs more awareness. People are really uneducated about skin cancer; they think it's just a harmless freckle. My instincts saved my life. I almost didn't go to the doctor to get the spot on my leg checked because it wasn't the ugly brown sort of mole you think of, it was a 'pretty beauty mark' to me," Babitt told Stylelist.
According to Wechsler, the bottom line with skin cancer, is early detection, which means an early cure. "That means getting a skin exam from a dermatologist once a year, avoiding tanning beds and salons -- one visit to a tanning booth can increase your melanoma risk by 40 to 50 percent -- and wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 every single day of the year."
Wechsler prefers physical sunscreen that contains micronized zinc or titanium dioxide and provides immediate protection from UV rays as soon as you apply it. And she recommends learning your family health history, because if you have parents, siblings or grandparents who've had melanoma, you're much more likely to be at risk and need to get skin checks twice a year, as opposed to the standard annual exam. If you have a darker complexion, you actually have a greater risk of dying from skin cancer than your light-skinned counterparts, according to a study.