"You've got cancer." Most women in their 20s and 30s can't even imagine hearing those chilling words. But the truth is that youth doesn't always shield you from disease. Here, how to recognize some of the most prevalent types of cancer found in women under age 40 and the steps to take to reduce your risk.

What it is A deadly form of skin cancer. While melanoma accounts for only about 4 percent of all skin-cancer cases, it causes almost 80 percent of the deaths. "The belief is that if you're tan, you're healthy, but that tan could prove deadly," says Casey Culbertson, M.D., chairman of the Melanoma Research Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

How common According to the Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, the melanoma rate is increasing particularly rapidly in younger women: It's the most common cancer to hit women ages 25-29 and the second most common cancer (after breast cancer) in women 30-34, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. In general, the people most at risk are Caucasians (especially those with fair skin and light eyes/hair) who've had a blistering sunburn before age 18.

Red flags Moles (most people have 10-40 of them, though people with dark skin may have fewer) that change in size, shape or color, as well as ones that flake or itch; a dermatologist should check these right away, as even one such change could indicate melanoma.

Risk reduction Avoid the sun at peak hours -- between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. -- and do not use tanning booths. When you head outside, slather on sunblock with SPF 30 or higher about 20 minutes before going out and wear sunglasses and protective clothing, such as a hat. Also, see a dermatologist twice a year; he or she will monitor suspicious-looking moles by measuring and photographing them. (Ask the doctor to do this, if she doesn't offer.) Perform your own head-to-toe skin check regularly (including ears, genital area and between the toes), and enlist your partner to inspect hard-to-see spots such as your rear, back and scalp.

Treatment options A superficial skin lesion often can be excised, with no other treatment required. If a growth is deeper than that, the dermatologist will remove as much of it as possible and may do a lymph-node biopsy to see whether or not the cancer has spread. In addition to surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation may be required. In the future, a melanoma vaccine may be available; several pharmaceutical companies are currently testing vaccines.

Survival rate If the melanoma is on or just below the skin's surface, the five- and 10-year survival rates are 90-100 percent, according to Culbertson. However, once melanoma invades the deep tissues of the skin, prognosis worsens. If the cancer has reached the lymph nodes, for example, the five-year survival rate is 30 percent.

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