The Changing Face of Melanoma
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UPDATED: Aug 6, 2020
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Two years ago next month, I was diagnosed with melanoma. I remember the call from my dermatologist like it was just yesterday. When my phone rang at 5:15 pm that Thursday evening and the caller ID displayed his office number, I knew before I even answered what he was going to say.
It should not have come as such a surprise as it did, however. Like many people my age — I was 45 at the time, but don’t do the math 🙂 — I spent the bulk of my youth outdoors riding bikes, playing baseball and swimming at the lake. All the while not concerned one bit with sun protection. In fact, many of those lake days were spent sporting a fresh, shiny layer of iodine infused baby oil (shudder).
Of course, we didn’t know any better back then, but we certainly do now.
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of cancer that begins in melanocytes, which are one of the three primary types of skin cells (basal cells and squamous cells being the others). Ironically, melanocytes produce melanin, which helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Because melanoma cells can continue to produce melanin, most melanoma tumors are often brown or black. However, they can also appear as tan, pink, or even white.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with approximately 5.5 million new cases diagnosed each year. Most of these are non-melanoma cancers such as basal cell and squamous cell. Melanoma is the least common but most deadly form of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 76,380 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2016, while an estimated 10,310 Americans will die this year due to melanoma.
Despite these grim statistics, melanoma is highly curable if detected and treated early. Patients treated at an early stage (1 – 2) have a 97% survivor rate five years after treatment. However, that rate drops dramatically to 15-20% for patients that do not begin treatment until stage 4.
Melanoma is preventable, and all it takes is good common sense and an iron-clad commitment to sun protection. The following guidelines are a good place to start:
- Avoid the sun during the hours of 10 am to 4 pm.
- Use a broad spectrum sunscreen (UVA/UVB) with an SPF of at least 30.
- Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and more frequently if you are swimming or sweating excessively.
- Wear UV-blocking clothing including a hat and sunglasses.
- Perform a skin check monthly. Enlist a family member or friend to help with hard-to-see areas such as your back and scalp.
- Visit a dermatologist annually for a thorough skin check.
American Academy of Dermatology advises everyone learn the ABCDE’s of melanoma:
- A is for Asymmetry: One-half of the mole does not match the other half.
- B is for Border irregularity: The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
- C is for Color that varies from one area to another.
- D is for Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
- E is for Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.
You can find more information and precautions at the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website.
Impact of Melanoma on Term Life Insurance
You likely came here to find out if you can get term life insurance if you have/had melanoma. The answer is yes; you can. However, as with most medical conditions, how long you’ll have to wait and how much you’ll have to pay depends on your individual circumstances.
The biggest factor the life insurance company will look at is the stage of your cancer at diagnosis. The stage is defined as the size of the lesion and the level of invasion. As I mentioned, early diagnosis and treatment lead to better outcomes, and this is what the company wants to see. Also, the company will evaluate the treatment plan, the consistency of physician follow-ups, and subsequent treatment when determining if you qualify for term life insurance.
For stage 1 -2 cancers, there are a couple of companies that will allow you to apply for coverage immediately after successful treatment. In general, though, you can expect to wait 1-2 years to qualify for coverage. At this time frame, you’re likely to receive a Standard rate at best. You may also be asked to pay an additional amount, also known as a flat-extra premium. Most companies will never offer you better than Standard, regardless of how long you’ve been in remission. But there may be exceptions to this, depending on the company.
For stage 3-4 cancers, you can expect to wait 2 – 10 years before qualifying for coverage. The exact time will vary greatly depending on the treatment and prognosis. Most metastatic melanomas (those that have spread to surrounding tissues) will result in an automatic decline or require you to pay a flat-extra premium.
The days of frying ourselves in the sun and using tanning beds may be behind us, but we know that one in five Americans will still develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. The numbers are sobering, but you don’t have to be one of them. You have the knowledge to fight melanoma, a tool many of us didn’t have when we were younger. Use it wisely to protect yourself and your family.
If you find yourself with a melanoma diagnosis, fight courageously knowing you can be cured. And once you are, take the time to research and shop for a good company that will offer you a term life insurance policy. They’ll be lucky to have you because, after all, if you can beat cancer, you can beat anything!