Overview of Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. This type of cancer begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin it’s color. Melanoma can sometimes occur in the eyes, nose, or throat. The cause of melanoma is unclear, but is assumed to occur after longtime exposure to UV light or sunlight. Women under the age of 40 are at an increased risked. This type of cancer can be treated if detected early.

Symptoms of Melanoma

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common areas are areas that are exposed to the sun, such as back, legs, arms, and face. It does not mean that only skin that is exposed to the sun is at risk; it can also occur on any part of the body, such as feet, palms, throat, nose, or fingernail beds.

The first sign of melanoma is a change in an existing mole or a growth of new pigmented skin. It does not always begin as a mole.

Normal moles are typically a uniformed color, such as tan, black, or brown. A typical mole will also usually have a frame that distinguishes the mole from the skin. It is usually round or oval and smaller than ¼ of an inch in diameter. Moles begin to develop and will continue to develop until the age of 40. Most people have between 10-40 moles.

To identify an unusual mole, use the ABCDE method.

A – asymmetrical shape
B – irregular border
C – changes in color
D – diameter
E – evolving

Cancerous moles will vary in appearance greatly. Some of these may be hidden on parts of your body that have little or no exposure. When a melanoma occurs in places that are not common, they are considered a hidden melanoma. People with darker skin are more susceptible to hidden melanomas.

Causes of Melanoma

Melanoma occurs in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin. Melanin is the cells that give color to your skin. Typically, skin cells develop in a very orderly way. Healthy skin cells push off the older cells. It is not completely clear as to why melanoma develops. Some things to consider are genetic factors, environmental factors, UV radiation exposure, etc.

Risk Factors of Melanoma

If melanoma occurs as a result of sun exposure, then people with fair skin are at the highest risk. People with fair skin also typically have blonde or red hair, light eyes, or sunburn easily. Melanoma can also occur in people with a darker complexion. If your family has a history of melanoma, then you are at a higher risk as well.

If you have a history of repeat sunburns, even just one blistering sunburn, can increase the risk of melanoma. Even if you do not get sunburns from being outside, you can put yourself at risk from being in tanning beds as well.

People that live closer to the equator are also at a higher risk. This is because the sun rays are more direct and these people are receiving higher rates of UV radiation.

Preventing Melanoma

The best way to prevent melanoma is to be cautious when you are in the sun. Avoid going outside during the middle of the day, as the sun’s rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm. Even in the winter and cloudy days, the sun’s rays are present and can still be dangerous. It is best to wear sunscreen every day and to reapply every two hours. Wearing protective clothing can also be extremely beneficial. Cover as much as your skin as possible with dark, tightly woven clothing, focusing on your arms and legs. A large hat can provide coverage from the sun as well. Sunglasses are also extremely beneficial.

Avoiding tanning beds is essential. If you are looking for ways to tan, then look into sunless tanners.

It is essential to look over your skin regularly and see your dermatologist annually as well. Get accustomed to the moles you already have and what they typically look like. You can examine to see if there are any large changes.

Diagnosing Melanoma

The first step in diagnosing melanoma is a physical exam. Your physician will ask about your health history but will also examine your skin to see if there are any indications of melanoma.

If melanoma is present, your physician will remove a sample of tissue for testing. Once the diagnosis is made, then you will need to determine the stage of the melanoma. The thickness will be determined by examining the melanoma under the microscope. The thicker it is, the more serious it is.

The next step is to see if the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes. If it has spread, then your physician may recommend a sentinel node biopsy.

For people with advanced melanoma, then your physician may recommend an imaging test such as a PET, CT, or x-ray. These tests will be able to show if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Treatment of Melanoma

The most common treatment for melanoma is to remove the melanoma. In some cases, this is the only treatment that is necessary. If further treatment is necessary, your physician may discuss immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Immunotherapy is a treatment that will aid your immune system to fight the cancer. This treatment may also be recommended after the surgery has been complete to remove the cancer, but there is a threat that it has spread to other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy is a drug used to kill the cancer cells. This can be given through a pill or an IV.

Radiation therapy is done by using high-powered beams to kill the cancer cells. This type of therapy is especially important if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body as well. Once a treatment is selected, then it is important to continue to monitor symptoms and keep regular follow ups with your physician.