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Ask the MD: Melanoma and Parkinson’s Disease

Ask the MD: Parkinson’s Disease and Melanoma

It’s important for all of us — living with Parkinson’s or not — to protect ourselves from the sun. While sunlight has benefits, such as boosting Vitamin D and mood, it has risks too. One of the biggest risks is skin cancer, including melanoma. Outside of sunlight exposure, other factors — such as Parkinson’s disease (PD) — increase the chance of getting this serious type of skin cancer. In general, the risk of melanoma when living with Parkinson’s is still low, but it’s good to be aware and to take steps to limit risk.

Interestingly, people with melanoma also have a higher risk of PD. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how or why these two conditions are connected. Many of the same factors increase risk for both diseases: older age, white race, male sex, family or personal history of the disease, and others. PD and melanoma also may share disease-causing pathways, involving the protein alpha-synuclein, which clumps in brain cells in PD; genetic changes, such as LRRK2, which increases PD risk; or melanin, which colors hair, skin and eyes and is present in brain cells that PD impacts.

Studying these potential connections helps researchers learn more about both Parkinson’s and melanoma and find ways to better diagnose and treat each. The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) has long funded work in this area. And, in 2022, MJFF partnered with the Melanoma Research Alliance to co-fund two grants further investigating this link.

As scientists work toward deeper understanding, what can you do to lower your risk of melanoma when living with PD? Consider these tips:

  • See a skin doctor
    Visit a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions, at least once a year. They will thoroughly examine your skin, noting any concerning areas. They also can offer treatment recommendations for dry, flaky or oily skin, something many people with PD experience. 
    Ask your Parkinson’s or primary doctor or others in the PD community for a recommendation. Or search online for someone in your area through the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) database.
  • Check your skin
    Once a month or so, take a good look at your skin. Check for new or changing moles. Look for differences in color, size, shape or thickness. Don’t forget to look at nails, between fingers and toes, and on your scalp and back. (Use a mirror or ask a loved one to help.) If you notice changes, see your dermatologist.
  • Wear sunscreen
    Sunscreen protects from the sun’s harmful, potentially skin-cancer-causing rays. Wear it year-round, even on cloudy days or for short periods outside. The AAD recommends sunscreen be broad-spectrum (block UVA and UVB rays), SPF 30 or higher, and water-resistant. Apply at least one ounce, about the size of a shot glass, 15 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours, more often if you sweat or swim.
  • Dress for the sun
    What you wear can offer additional protection. Sunglasses protect your eyes; a wide-brimmed hat covers your head and ears; and specially designed clothing can block harmful sunrays. Wear lightweight and light-colored clothing, avoid the sun when it’s most intense in the middle of the day, and enjoy the outdoors in the shade.
  • Avoid tanning beds
    These contain UV light, which can cause skin cancer. If you want a tan, try self-tanning lotion.
  • Get enough Vitamin D
    Vitamin D helps keep bones healthy. This is especially important in people with Parkinson’s who may be at risk for falls. While the sun is a good source, certain foods and supplements also contain Vitamin D. Fish and eggs are high in the vitamin and many others, such as juice, plant-based and cow’s milk, and cereals have added D. Have your doctor check your Vitamin D, and ask about what to eat and whether to take a supplement.

For more information and tips on life with Parkinson’s, visit our Ask the MD webpage.

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