So you’re sitting in the dermatologist’s waiting room, filling out the usual forms required for a doctor visit. After filling in the basics, you spot the next question and realize you’re stumped: it’s asking about your family’s medical history. Has anyone in your family had melanoma or any other form of skin cancer? Here’s why the doctor asks, and what you need to know:
History Could Repeat Itself
A family history of melanoma increases your risk of developing the cancer yourself, according to Ramzi Saad, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Skin Cancer Foundation member based in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In fact, about one in every 10 patients diagnosed with melanoma has a family member with a history of the disease. When gathering family history, Dr. Saad says, the more information, the better.
“We ask for a history of skin cancers, specifically melanoma, but getting a family history of all cancers is also important,” he says. “There are some genetic connections between melanoma and other cancers.”
Closer Relative, Higher Risk
Gathering accurate information about multiple family members can be a little intimidating, but Dr. Saad notes a few points that are of particular importance when digging through medical history. The number of relatives that have had melanoma, particularly first-degree relatives like parents or siblings, is a definite need-to-know. Each person with a first-degree relative diagnosed with melanoma has a whopping 50 percent greater chance of developing the disease than people who do not have a family history of the disease.
Saad says the more complete the history, the better, but the number of first-degree relatives with the disease is the most important predictive factor for an increased risk of melanoma.
What happens if you do find out that skin cancer runs in your family? Saad recommends extra vigilance for prevention, being sure to use sunscreen every day and avoiding unnecessary sun exposure. He points to our tips on how to perform a self exam, but notes that seeing a dermatologist annually is critical as well.
“A full skin examination by a trained professional can help to identify suspicious lesions needing removal,” Dr. Saad says. A board-certified dermatologist will also be able to help patients keep an eye on lesions that may become cancerous in the future, and establish the appropriate follow-up frequency for that individual’s skin checks.
So in advance of your next skin check, try gathering some info on your family’s medical history. You might be surprised to learn that someone close to you once dealt with skin cancer, and that knowledge can help your dermatologist help you.