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Skin Cancer Awareness Month: Why survival rates for melanoma are increasing

Melanoma Monday: Survival rates improving
Melanoma Monday: Survival rates improving due to treatment advances 03:05

The first Monday in May kicks off Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and so "CBS This Morning" is taking a closer look at the deadliest type of skin cancer, melanoma, which is on the rise.

According to the National Cancer Institute, melanoma is expected to kill more than 7,200 Americans this year. The number of cases has been growing for the past decade, with more than 96,000 new cases expected in 2019.

But there has been progress; more than 92 percent of melanoma patients survive at least five years.

"Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer, and we think unfortunately rates are still going up due to high levels of unprotected skin exposure and people are still using tanning beds," said Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a dermatologist, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. "But fortunately, for the first time the survival rate is improving due to advances in treatment of advanced melanoma."

Hale told "CBS This Morning" cohost Norah O'Donnell that, unlike other cancers, melanoma doesn't respond well to chemotherapy or radiation therapy, which is why advanced melanoma is so deadly. "But recently and over the past several years, there have been ten new immunotherapies," she said. 

"We know melanoma is a very smart cancer and it can deceive our immune system. So, by using immunotherapy to stimulate out own immune system to attack melanoma, the improvement in survival has been gradually increasing. Unfortunately, these therapies do have significant side effects."

She said that skin cancer, when it's caught early, is almost always curable, provided people get an early skin check based on "the A, B, C, D and Es of melanoma":

  • A is for asymmetry
  • B is for border irregularity
  • C is for color variation
  • D is for diameter
  • E is for evolution or change.

"If you see a mole that is new or changing, get in to see a board-certified dermatologist for a skin check every year," Hale said, "but if you've had skin cancer, get in at least twice a year."

"CBS This Morning" continues its coverage of Skin Cancer Awareness Month tomorrow, when Dr. Tara Narula separates fact from fiction when it comes to how sunscreens work.

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