Melanoma Skin Cancer
What is melanoma? »
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It develops in the skin cells that produce melanin, the melanocytes. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or from tanning beds increases a person’s risk for developing melanoma. The reason melanoma is more deadly than squamous cell or basal cell carcinoma is that as melanoma progresses it grows downward and can begin to deposit cancerous cells into the bloodstream where they can spread the cancer anywhere in the body.
What are the symptoms of melanoma? »
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, but in fair-skinned people it usually develops in areas that have had lots of sun exposure: the face, arms, back, and legs. Unlike other skin cancers, melanoma can also develop in areas that don’t receive sun exposure, such as the soles of the feet, the beds of the fingernails, and the palms of the hands. This is more rare and occurs most often in people with darker skin tones.
Melanoma is more common in people with over 50 moles on their body.
The first signs and symptoms of a melanoma are:
- A change in an existing mole
- Development of a new pigmented or unusual-looking growth on your skin or area of your skin
This is not always the case, as melanoma can occur on skin that appears to be normal.
When considering a mole to be melanoma, it helps to remember these ABCDE warning signs:
- Asymmetry — If one half of the mole doesn’t match the other half, that’s a concern. Normal moles are symmetrical.
- Border — If the border or edges of your mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular, it should be checked.
- Color — Normal moles are a single shade throughout. If your mole has changed color or if it has different shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red, then it should be checked.
- Diameter — If a mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil, it needs to be checked.
- Evolving — If a mole evolves by shrinking, growing larger, changing color, itching or bleeding, or other changes, it should be checked. Melanoma lesions often grow in size or gain height rapidly.
What causes melanoma? »
The exact causes of melanoma are not fully understood, as it can occur in both people who have had serious sun exposure (in those areas) and in those who have not (when it occurs on areas such as the soles of the feet). It occurs when the DNA of the melanin-producing cells, the melanocytes, is damaged. This causes these skin cells to grow out of control, which can eventually become a mass of cancerous cells.
It is believed that UV radiation is the leading cause. Melanoma is more common in those with fairer skin, as they have less melanin in the skin, which acts as a protection mechanism by darkening with sun exposure (tanning). It is thought that extreme peeling sunburns when a person is a child or adolescent have a direct correlation with increased risk of melanoma. Research has shown that every one of these peeling sunburns can double the person’s risk of developing melanoma as an adult.
How is melanoma treated? »
The treatment of melanoma depends on the size and stage of the cancer. If caught early, melanoma can be fully removed during the biopsy. This is especially true if the cancer has not started growing downward yet.
There has been some success with early stage melanoma using medications that make the body attack the area with white blood cells. Lotions are applied to the area with the melanoma and they inflame the area to a degree that the skin almost becomes an open sore. This inflammation activates the white blood cells to hunt for invaders, killing the cancer cells.
Mohs surgery is effective for removing melanoma that has been diagnosed, but hasn’t spread. Mohs surgery involves removing the melanoma and a surrounding ring of tissue. This outer ring is instantly examined under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells still present. If there are, another ring of tissue is immediately removed and examined. This process is repeated until the tissue is free of cancer cells. For Mohs surgery, you need to be sure to have a surgeon who is a member of the American Society for Mohs Surgery.
These methods are used to remove melanoma that has not spread. If the melanoma has spread, treatment for this skin cancer is similar to treatment for other cancers:
- Surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes
- Radiation therapy
What is the cure rate for melanoma? »
If caught early, the success rate for treating melanoma is very high. That’s why yearly skin cancer screenings are so important, particularly for people with fair skin. The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99 percent in the U.S. But when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate falls to 63 percent. If the cancer has spread to distant organs, this rate falls to just 20 percent.