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Genetic Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

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Contributed by Jessica N. Everett, M.S., CGC, U-M Genetics Counselor

Many factors can increase the risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers. Some of these factors are due to behaviors, like exposure to the sun. However, some risk factors for skin cancers are inherited in families.

Genetics and Melanoma

Researchers have identified several genetic risk factors for melanoma. Mutations (or changes) in these genes can cause increased risk for melanoma. The best understood gene associated with melanoma risk is called CDKN2A (also sometimes known as p16). Mutations in another gene, MC1R, result in red hair and fair skin, and are also associated with risk for melanoma. More recently, mutations in the MITF gene and the TERT gene have been identified in families with multiple cases of melanoma. Researchers are still learning about how to use genetic testing to help take care of families with genetic risk.

If you or a family member has had melanoma, it may be worth talking with your doctor about the rest of your family history. Some clues to inherited risk include:

  • Individuals with more than one melanoma
  • Other cancers in family members including:
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Head and neck cancer
    • Breast cancer
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Kidney cancer
  • Cancers diagnosed at earlier ages than typically expected

People who have a family history of multiple relatives with cancers could benefit from meeting with a genetic counselor to talk about possible genetic testing, personal cancer risk, and cancer screening options.

For people who have an increased risk of melanoma, there are important steps that can help to reduce the chance of developing melanoma.

Limit sun exposure

  • Find shade when possible
  • Avoid exposure between 10 am and 4 pm when UV light is strongest
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher daily

Check your skin

  • Learn how to do a skin self exam and check your skin once a month
  • Have regular skin exams by a doctor
  • Talk to your doctor if a mole or spot on the skin is changing in size, shape or color, or if it is persistently itching, bleeding, or growing

Learn more about cancer genetics and skin cancer detection and prevention