Former President Jimmy Carter's revelation that he is being treated for melanomas in the brain and the death of neuroscientist Oliver Sacks due to a similar condition are throwing a spotlight on a cancer affecting more and more Americans. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
Former President Jimmy Carter recently spoke candidly about his fight against a melanoma that spread from his liver to four locations on his brain.
Unlike Carter's case, the melanoma that claimed the life of the neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks over the weekend began in his eye and spread to his liver.
It's well known that overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause melanoma on the skin. Less well known is what causes internal melanomas.
A family history of pancreatic cancer put Carter at higher risk for internal melanoma. But the sun also may play a role in this kind of cancer.
"There’s a theory that sun exposure on one site of your body increases melanoma risk at other sites, whether internally or on the hands and feet. Because of its effect on the immune system, if the ultraviolet radiation diminishes the immune surveillance, it's easier for the cancer to develop," explains Dr. Barney Kenet, a dermatologist at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Kenet says it's important for everyone - regardless of skin color - to avoid sunburn, which greatly increases the risk of a melanoma on the skin or internally.
"There's a huge benefit to being familiar with the mole spots and freckles on your body. In doing so if they were to change or grow, you can bring them to the attention of your dermatologist. Melanoma in its early stage is eminently treatable," says Dr. Kenet.
Until recently, the prognosis for internal melanomas was poor. But treatment has gotten much better.
Carter will benefit from stereotactic radiation where only the affected spots will be treated - and the new immunotherapy drug embrolizumab, approved by the FDA last fall.
"That can enhance a person's immune response and help them to fight their cancer," says Dr. Kenet.
But being proactive and blocking your exposure to the sun may help you avoid the fight completely.