Most of us associate skin cancer with adults—people who have spent years exposed to the sun. But over the years, Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, director of Pediatric Surgical Oncology at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, has witnessed many cases of melanoma in kids.
“Melanoma is the most common skin cancer in patients 20 years and younger,” she says. Admittedly still rare—of the 55,000 cases diagnosed each year, 5 percent occur in patients younger than 20, and .3 percent in patients under 14—“the area known as the Sunbelt,” says Dr. Hayes-Jordan, “has seen a higher incidence over the years.”
Although prolonged sun exposure is a factor in all skin cancers, including melanoma, it’s not the only cause. “Physicians and pediatricians are still unaware of what exactly causes it,” says the doctor, “because it has been found in children as young as two years old.” In certain cases, it’s congenital.
Melanoma lesions tend to be between 1 and 4 millimeters in diameter and are often mistaken for warts, moles, or freckles. Parents should watch for changes in the color and shape of existing moles, new lumps, and, at the beginning of manifestation, itching or bleeding.
Given its serious nature and the misperception that skin cancer is an adult disease, parents should get in the habit of inspecting their children’s skin closely, and take them to a dermatologist if anything abnormal is found. Early detection is the key with any form of cancer.
The good news: melanoma is very treatable. After surgeons remove the lesion, the patient continues to have post-op follow-up for a full year, and over the following five years, there are periodic checkups to monitor for relapse.
It’s most important for parents to be proactive, says Dr. Hayes-Jordan. If you think you’ve spotted something, get it checked out. “Remember that no problem is too small to seek the help of your pediatrician,” she says.