Melanoma is the least common skin cancer which occurs in the United States, but it is also potentially the most deadly. Melanoma begins in the melanocytes, the cells which produce melanin, which is responsible for the skin?s color. Melanoma most often begins to develop in a mole, but it can take different forms. Melanoma can quickly spread to other areas of the body, and it is imperative to have the condition diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
What are the causes of melanoma?
The primary cause of melanoma is excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation. UV radiation from the sun and other sources, including artificial tanning booths, can damage the skin cells, altering the cell?s internal structure and resulting in abnormal growth.
Are you at Risk?
Knowing your risk factors can help determine if you might have a greater chance of developing melanoma. You may be at greater risk for melanoma if:
- You have a family history of melanoma
- You have unusual moles with uneven borders, or moles which change in shape or size
- You have more than 50 moles
- You?ve been diagnosed with melanoma in the past
- Your immune system is weakened by medication, illness, or other conditions
- You had one or more severe sunburns as a young adult or child
- You have freckles
- You have fair skin and light eyes
- You live in an area which receives a high amount of sunshine
- You spend a lot of time outdoors during the day
The first and most effective mode of prevention is to reduce the amount of time spent in the sun, avoiding overexposure to the sun?s direct rays. Sunscreen and protective clothing should be worn at all times while exposed to the sun for any prolonged period of time, and tanning booths should be avoided. Men and women should have a regular skin exam performed by a skin specialist to keep track of any changes in moles and other skin anomalies.
What are the symptoms?
Melanoma can occur in different forms, and often initially appears as a new mole or as changes in an existing mole. It can also occur as a scaly or patchy area that appears tan, brown, black, red, or multi-colored. In some cases, the patchy area may itch or bleed.
What are the warning signs?
Generally, men and women who notice the following changes in their skin should see their doctor right away:
- a growth which has increased in size or changed I color, or which appears brown, black, tan, pink, red, or multicolored
- a mole which changes in size or shape
- an area on the skin which develops a consistent itch or scab-like covering
- an open sore which does not heal within 4 weeks, or which heals and then reopens
- a scaly area which appears pointed and may feel tender
Melanoma generally occurs in four types:
- Nodular melanoma
- Superficial spreading melanoma
- Lentigo maligna melanoma
- Acral Lentiginous
The diagnosis of melanoma begins with a screening performed by a skin specialist, who inspects your skin to determine the existence and appearance of moles, scaly patches, or other conditions. When a mole or other area appears unusual to the specialist, a biopsy may be ordered. During the biopsy, a small section or sample of the affected area will be removed and examined in a laboratory to determine whether or not the sample is cancerous.
What treatments are available?
For melanoma caught in its early stages, surgery is performed to remove both the affected area and some surrounding tissue, to make sure the entire melanoma has been removed. In some instances of especially large melanomas, a skin graft may be necessary to replace tissue removed during treatment. If the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, those nodes may also be removed surgically.
In more advanced melanomas, chemotherapy using a course of drugs, and radiation therapy may be used for treatment.