Doctors routinely screen kids for all sorts of health concerns, but what about skin cancer?
Most of the time, skin cancer affects adults, but it can — rarely — develop in children, too.
While melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer in adults, it’s the only significant type of skin cancer that shows up in kids.
If you have a family history of the disease or are worried about a spot on your child’s skin, it’s a good idea to get screening.
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How Common Is Childhood Skin Cancer?
About 60,000 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, are diagnosed in the United States each year. Only around 450 of those affected are under the age of 20, according to CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, a foundation dedicated to driving research and innovation for children’s cancers.
But researchers say that cases of pediatric melanoma are going up; the incidence has increased an average of 2 percent every year since 1973. The biggest surge is in girls between ages 15 and 19, which is likely related to sun exposure and the use of tanning beds, according to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.
Melanoma is now the second most common cancer in people ages 15 to 29, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and accounts for up to 3 percent of all childhood cancers.
Nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are extremely rare in children and teens. A report published in 2019 by the Siteman Cancer Center in Missouri that looked at 7,814 cases of skin cancer in patients younger than 30 found that these types of cancers accounted for only 0.008 percent of all cases.
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Types of Skin Cancer in Kids
Pediatric melanomas are usually divided into three different types:
- Conventional melanoma Conventional melanomas are often diagnosed after puberty and are similar to adult melanomas.
- Spitzoid melanoma These types of melanomas typically look different from adult melanomas and lack signature genetic mutations. They’re often nodular, round, and uniform in color.
- Congenital melanocytic nevus This is a large, pigmented mole or birthmark that’s present at birth and can develop into melanoma. About 5 percent to 10 percent of congenital melanocytic nevus cases turn cancerous.
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What Children Are at Risk for Skin Cancer?
Some risk factors for pediatric melanoma include having:
- A family history of melanoma
- Fair skin
- Blonde or red hair
- Several large moles or many small moles
- A history of blistering sunburns
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How to Identify Skin Cancer in Children
It’s common for kids to develop new moles and growths, but there are some classic signs that may indicate skin cancer.
In adults, melanomas usually appear darker, but in children they’re often whitish, yellowish, or pinkish.
The most common symptoms of childhood melanoma include:
- A bump that itches or bleeds
- A wart-like spot that’s yellowish, whitish, or pink
- An unusual-looking mole or lesion on the skin, especially if it’s large
Basal Cell Carcinomas
Basal cell carcinomas are unlikely to affect children, but there are signs you should be aware of.
- A small, raised lesion that’s shiny or pearly and may have small blood vessels
- A small, flat spot on the skin that’s scaly; irregular in shape; and pale, pink, or red
- A spot that bleeds easily, heals, and bleeds again a few weeks later
- A growth with raised edges that has a lower area in the center and contains brown, blue, or black areas
Squamous Cell Carcinomas
Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma is exceptionally rare in kids.
- A rough or scaly lesion that grows quickly
- A wart-like bump that may bleed or crust over
- Flat, red patches on the skin that are shaped irregularly and may or may not bleed
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Should You Your Child Get a Skin Check?
If you’re concerned about an unusual looking mole or have a family history of skin cancer, it’s a good idea to have your child checked by a pediatric dermatologist.
This specialist can conduct a full skin exam to look for any potential signs of skin cancer. If a spot looks suspicious, your child’s doctor can perform a biopsy to see if the tissue is cancerous.
It’s also helpful to talk to your child about keeping an eye out for any skin or mole changes.
What Treatments Are Available for Skin Cancer in Children?
Pediatric melanomas are typically treated much like adult melanomas.
Treatment options may include:
- Surgery Doctors cut out the entire melanoma and any cancerous lymph nodes.
- Chemotherapy Chemo may be used if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other places in the body.
- Radiation therapy This treatment uses beams of energy to kill cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy Immunotherapy trains your child’s immune system to attack cancer cells.
Your doctor can customize treatments to fit the needs of your child.
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How Can You Prevent Skin Cancer in Kids?
Taking measures to prevent skin cancer in childhood can also lower the risk later on.
Here are some habits to implement:
- Have kids wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day (for kids 6 months and older).
- Avoid being in the sun when it’s the strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
- Encourage kids to wear hats and protective clothing.
- Educate teens about the dangers of tanning salons.
- Model good sun protection behaviors yourself.
What’s the Outlook for Kids With Skin Cancer?
Children with melanoma typically have a better outlook than adults, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation.
The overall five-year survival rate for kids and teens with melanoma is 90 percent. About 60 percent of children whose melanoma has spread to their lymph nodes are expected to survive long-term.
Kids who have been treated for melanoma have a higher risk of having a recurrence later in life. That’s why it’s important to have regular medical checkups and practice prevention methods.