Outlook for skin cancer: Sunny

Keith Flaherty

You still need to block those rays, says cancer researcher Keith Flaherty, but a new drug holds promise for those with serious melanoma.

Things are looking up for patients who suffer from one of the most talked about threats of the season—skin cancer.

A promising new oral drug for metastatic melanoma—the most severe form of skin cancer—is on the horizon, according to Keith Flaherty, instructor of medicine in Penn’s Department of Medicine and a member of the Abramson Cancer Center. This new oral therapy is giving hope where very little had previously existed. In the past, standard chemotherapy alone has struggled to battle the disease. “[Metastatic melanoma] is a difficult type of cancer to treat,” said Flaherty. “When it’s advanced, it’s typically rapidly progressive and fatal within a year for most people.”

Flaherty explained that the new drug acts as an inhibitor of Raf kinase, an enzyme that plays a key role in cellular growth. For many patients with melanoma, an overactive Raf kinase pathway is a common abnormality. By targeting this abnormality, the drug has made impressive gains. Early results from a clinical study reveal that seven out of 10 patients, who were being treated with both the oral therapy and chemotherapy, have had dramatic results in terms of their tumors regressing.

Flaherty said that while only five percent of melanoma sufferers will develop metastatic or advanced melanoma, skin cancer is the leading cancer of young people. When it comes to skin cancer, the time between exposure to the sun and the development of the disease is not as lengthy as it is for other types of cancers, such as lung and breast.

The good news is that skin cancer is relatively easy to detect. “Early detection is absolutely the key,” said Flaherty, who suggests doing a monthly self check-up. Individuals coming out of their teenage years should pay attention to the development of new moles or changes, either in size, color or contour, in preexisting moles.

“ Melanoma does not have to arise in the mole itself,” said Flaherty. “It can pop up elsewhere in the skin but when you have these atypical moles it tells us that your skin is capable of forming [melanoma].”

If you find something unusual, seek the attention of a medical professional. “It’s very easy for a doctor—an internist or a family practitioner—to look at those types of lesions and be able to reassure someone that they are totally fine. You don’t have to move through the health system and specialists.”

And, of course, nothing beats prevention. Sunscreen with SPF 15 or stronger should be reapplied every few hours as sweat and water causes it to lose its effectiveness over time. For all you local sun worshippers hanging on the recent news that avoiding the sun is actually bad for you, listen to this. Flaherty said vitamin D deficiencies caused by a lack of sun exposure is more of a concern for residents north of New York on the East Coast, who experience different weather patterns than the rest of us.

Originally published on July 17, 2003