Melanoma Monday

I know that May the 1st (Melanoma Monday) has come and gone. The whole month of May is Melanoma Awareness month, and it brings with it some very strong feelings about my journey. I look back on my diagnosis like many a patient and ask “What did I do wrong? Did I deserve this? How do I prevent a relapse with this horrible disease?”

These are the daily life questions of ANYONE diagnosed with melanoma. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about how far I’ve come since my diagnosis and my goals of life-long remission.

Thankfully, treatment for Melanoma has really come a long way. The odds of surviving my diagnosis of Stage 3C just a few years ago were NOT in my favor – something like 24-29% five year survival rate. That meant that I had a one in 4 chance of making it 5 years before dying of the disease.

5 years!! I was diagnosed at 31 years old – if I reached the ripe old age of 36, I’d be lucky. VERY lucky. To compare this information to another deadly disease, I looked into the prognosis for breast cancer – stage 3 breast cancer has a 72% survival rate. Now, I’m not saying that breast cancer is a walk in the park – quite the contrary. And yet having breast cancer has a better chance of surviving stage 3 cancer than I do according to these statistics.

But with immunotherapy, these numbers have changed dramatically. It’s no longer a “roll of the dice” to see if you make it 5 years with a Melanoma diagnosis. Immunotherapy has changed the landscape of treatment options – and added some much needed flexibility with treatment. The statistics I have listed for melanoma are no longer valid thanks so these amazing new treatments.

However, immunotherapy isn’t a magic bullet. Many patients don’t respond to immunotherapy, and due to the way these drugs work, they can’t be given to everyone. Not to mention that the HUGE list of side effects can make these treatments hard to tolerate for a lot of people.

I have every intention of avoiding these side effects and NOT going back on immunotherapy. So what the heck can I do to prevent a recurrence?

If you’ve ever googled “cancer prevention” there are a MILLION trendy diets and tips and tricks. But if you boil it down to the major proven methods, here’s a small list:

1 – Eat more cancer-fighting super-foods such as berries and cruciferous vegetables

2 – Exercise more

3 – Stress less

4 – Get more sleep

5 – Get enough Vitamin D and DON’T avoid the sun

Whoa, whoa that last one can’t be right…can it? I mean, melanoma is CAUSED by sun exposure! But Vitamin D is created THROUGH your skin’s exposure to sunlight – and it’s a necessary vitamin to fight many cancers, including melanoma.

Map of Melanoma in the US – many northern states have a higher rate of melanoma

Yes, the sun plays a major roll in all skin cancers. But melanoma isn’t like basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, which are directly linked to sun-exposed areas. Some forms of melanoma have been proven to NOT be linked to UV radiation at all!  And there have been plenty of studies all over the world PROVING that people with lower Vitamin D levels (and thus too little sunlight exposure)  have a poorer prognosis at diagnosis (and also written about here and here and here too!).  With all these strange connections between Vitamin D and melanoma, there are now even trials to test Vitamin D as an adjuvant treatment for melanoma.

Yet, every melanoma patient is told to AVOID THE SUN at all costs. Every dermatologist and doctor playing by the ‘rules’ will also say the same thing. Avoid the sun. Wear 30+ SPF. But then many will also say that you need to take Vitamin D supplements in the same sentence. Why avoid the very thing that can help PREVENT melanoma and then take artificial supplements to try and make up for it?

A map of the sun’s UV radiation in the US. Could there be a link between the lower UV rays (and lower Vitamin D levels) of the states with higher rates of melanoma?

We have a billion dollar supplement industry, and this is a prime example. Avoid the sun, and take a supplement to give you the necessary vitamin that the sun provides free of charge.

Now, with all things in life, moderation is key. I’m not telling you to go out there and fry yourself to get your daily Vitamin D intake. Quite the contrary. I’m telling you to think about your skin’s daily intake of UV radiation. Both avoiding the sun entirely and sunbathing for hours are toxic. Why not aim for the moderate middle – daily sunlight, avoiding burns on extended days outside, and if you’re in the winter months, consider vitamin D.

No, I’m not an oncologist. I’m not a dermatologist. I’m just someone who’s been researching these interesting connections since my own diagnosis. Sometimes doctors insist on hard proof for the smallest connections when, really, just using common sense is all that you need.

So during this month of Melanoma Awareness, make sure you’re aware of the things YOU can do to prevent melanoma. Do your own research. Make your own healthcare decisions – they may change your life.

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