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Studies show the rate of melanoma among children, adolescents and young adults has reached epidemic proportions, with young females at highest risk for the deadly cancer.

Teenagers rarely think of illnesses or diseases, especially life-threatening ones like melanoma. But for Selena Moon Mercado, the threat of the most common type of skin cancer became a reality when she was only 16.

Mercado noticed a new freckle near her left knee in early 2015. Within a month the freckle had turned dark—almost black. She admits that’s when she should have had the spot checked out, but it wasn’t until a few months later, when the spot began to change and bleed, that she went to her doctor.

A biopsy confirmed that she had melanoma.

“I had no clue what melanoma was,” Moon said. “I was terrified for my life.”

Receiving that professional opinion no doubt saved Moon’s life. Today she joins a growing number of young people who are now getting regular skin checks, according to Dr. Vernon Sondak, chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

"Young patients, children and adolescents in particular, are now more likely to be sent to a dermatologist and have something biopsied than they were 20 years ago,” Sondak said. “Back then it just didn’t happen regularly.”

After her initial diagnosis, doctors told Moon that her cancer had spread out in all directions. The news was surprising, especially since she was never one for sunbathing.

In July of 2015, Moon had her first surgery at Moffitt to remove the main tumor in her knee. Doctors were concerned about the health of her lymph nodes too and eventually removed several from her left groin.

Fortunately, her prognosis is good, but she continues to worry about melanoma. Now at 19, Moon receives regular skin checks and PET scans, and alerts her doctor to any concerning freckles or moles.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there will be more than 91,000 new cases of invasive melanoma diagnosed in the United States in 2018. It is estimated that more than 3,000 women will die from the disease this calendar year.

So what can young women – and anyone who is concerned about melanoma – do to combat the effects of the sun on their skin other than avoiding tanning beds and sunbathing? Dr. Sondak suggests sunscreen and appropriate clothing, no matter the activity.

“All clothing has some degree of protection from ultraviolet light,” Sondak said. “We call it the UPF, instead of the SPF we use for sunscreen. I like to start by explaining the basics: a white T-shirt right out of the bag has a UPF of about 6, which is about the equivalent of putting on a sunscreen of 6. That is not very protective.”

Sondak also suggests applying sunscreen around and underneath clothing, even if it has a higher UPF rating.

“Use some sunscreen especially around the sleeves and neck where clothing might pull away a little bit.”

And, of course, if you notice anything irregular on your skin, get it checked by a doctor. It’s better to overreact than to react too late.