May is Melanoma Awareness Month. If you’re wondering what that has to do with Parkinson’s disease (PD), you’re not alone. Many people with PD and even some doctors are not aware that those with Parkinson’s have an increased risk of melanoma. Armed with this information, you can take steps to limit your chances of developing this dangerous form of skin cancer.
Researchers don’t yet know why people with Parkinson’s disease develop melanoma more often than those without PD. However, because those with melanoma are also at an increased risk for Parkinson’s, researchers are looking for a common connection between the two conditions.
At the surface, these diseases may seem completely unrelated — Parkinson’s is due to death of dopamine-producing cells while melanoma results from overgrowth of cells that make melanin (the pigment that colors skin, hair and eyes).
With a closer look, though, this association may make more sense. The cells that make dopamine are high in melanin. That’s why the brain region where they are located is called the substantia nigra or “black substance” — the cells are actually darker than surrounding areas.
Looking for a Common Link in PD and Melanoma
MJFF-funded scientists are investigating possible connections between melanoma and Parkinson’s disease. One group investigated the role of alpha-synuclein (the sticky protein that clumps in the brains of people with PD) in both conditions. Another is studying a melanoma-related gene to see if it impacts dopamine cells. One team is evaluating the incidence of cancer in people with the LRRK2 gene mutation (associated with Parkinson’s disease).
Learning more about the relationship between PD and melanoma may lead to a better understanding of the individual diseases and contribute to more effective treatments.
Know Your Risk for Melanoma
In addition to Parkinson’s disease, several other factors can increase risk for melanoma. These include:
- Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
- Caucasian race
- Older age
- Male gender
- Family history of melanoma
- Personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers
While you can shield yourself from UV light by avoiding tanning beds and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing, you obviously can’t change your race, age or family history. If these characteristics or Parkinson’s disease put you at a higher risk for melanoma, it’s important to know the signs of this cancer — such as a change in the size, shape or color of a mole — and to thoroughly check your own skin once a month. You should also see a dermatologist for a professional exam at least once yearly.
Talk with your doctor about your personal risk of melanoma and the best plan for prevention and monitoring. Melanoma is treatable when caught in the early stages.
As May comes to an end and summer heats up, be proactive in your health care. It’s important to stay active and get outdoors, but soak up the sun in moderation — and remember to wear sunscreen!