Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects the melanocytes. Melanocytes are skin cells that produce melanin, which is the substance that provides the skin with color.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer. It is the least common type of skin cancer, but it is the most dangerous. Melanoma is more likely to metastasize, or spread to other organs, and comes with the highest risk of death.
When caught early, most patients respond well to melanoma treatment. However, this early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to a good prognosis. If you believe you may have melanoma, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Seeing a dermatologist is the only way to receive the treatment necessary to address melanoma.
If you are at an increased risk for developing melanoma or other skin cancers, consider establishing contact with a dermatologist before symptoms appear. Proactive skin management is the best way to prevent and treat skin cancer.
Like other forms of skin cancer, ultraviolet (UV) light exposure is the primary melanoma cause. This UV light can come from tanning beds and sunlight. Early and intense sun exposure, which includes getting frequent sunburns as a child, increases a person’s risk for developing melanoma.
However, other factors may contribute to melanoma. This includes:
If you are at an increased risk for developing melanoma, it is important to schedule regular appointments with a dermatologist. Only a medical professional can identify, diagnose, and treat skin cancer.
Melanoma symptoms can occur in two ways: the development of a new growth, or changes to an existing mole. However, not all growths, discolorations, and moles indicate melanoma. Your growth may be skin cancer if it has any of the following characteristics:
If you are unsure whether a mole is changing, see a doctor. In some cases, it can be helpful to track the growth with regular photos. Providing a dermatologist with photos of the mole over time can contribute to a diagnosis.
Melanoma lesions are likely to develop on more exposed parts of the skin, like the fact, shoulders, and neck. However, this type of skin cancer is known to form in other areas, like fingernail beds, the soles of the feet, and the palms of the hands. In some cases, a person may develop mucosal melanoma. This skin cancer occurs in the mucous membranes of the nose, urinary tract, digestive tract, and/or mouth. Eye melanoma, which occurs underneath the white of the eye, is also possible.
Like with other skin cancers, the melanoma’s appearance will depend on the type of melanoma a person has. There are four primary types of melanomas:
A routine physical exam or skin check is the first step toward getting a melanoma diagnosis. If you notice any skin abnormalities, make an appointment with your doctor. The doctor will be able to assess whether any moles appear concerning.
If there are any dangerous-looking skin lesions, the doctor will conduct a skin biopsy. In this procedure, the physician will collect a sample of skin cells from the affected area. They will then observe these cells under a microscope to determine if any are cancerous. Some doctors may also test the blood for lactate dehydrogenase levels. Higher levels of this enzyme are associated with melanoma.
If the doctor suspects the melanoma has spread, they will biopsy a lymph node to check for metastasis. A physician might also use various imaging tests, like an MRI, PET scan, or CT scan, to assess where the cancer has spread.
When melanoma is diagnosed, a doctor will describe the disease’s progression in terms of stages. These stages indicate whether the cancer has spread and to what extent it has affected other regions of the body. Like with most forms of cancer, melanoma has five stages.
While cancer stages are used to describe the disease’s progression, they can also be helpful in determining treatment. The doctor will assign a stage upon diagnosis, then track the stage as the patient undergoes treatment.
The melanoma treatment a doctor prescribes will depend on the cancer’s stage and progression. Early-stage melanoma is typically treated with surgery. Physically removing the cancer, either with a scalpel, a curette, or liquid nitrogen is sometimes enough for a patient to make a full recovery. Common surgeries include Mohs surgery, excisional surgery, and curettage and electrodessication.
Later-stage melanoma will require other types of treatment, often in addition to surgery. Stage 3 and stage 4 melanoma patients will typically undergo radiation therapy and/or immunotherapy. Some doctors may also recommend isolated or systemic chemotherapy to kill cancer cells.
A patient’s prognosis will depend on how early they detected the melanoma. Localized melanoma has a 99% survival rate. However, as the disease spreads, the prognosis worsens. To that end, melanoma is diagnosed in later stages around 83% of the time. Late-stage diagnosis has a higher chance of complications and death.
Melanoma prognoses will also depend on a person’s general health and age. Those with weakened immune systems are at increased risk of complications, and older people typically have reduced survival rates.
However, early and aggressive treatment can allow a patient to return to life as normal – just with a few more doctor’s appointments each year than before the diagnosis.
Prevention is the best form of melanoma treatment. Simple lifestyle changes, like avoiding sun exposure, wearing sunscreen, covering up, wearing wide-brimmed hats, and avoiding tanning beds, can be enough to prevent skin cancer. However, if you are genetically predisposed to skin cancer, regular dermatologist visits should accompany those lifestyle changes.
Additionally, it is important to check the body regularly for new and changing growths. People should take photos and take notes on a mole’s size, shape, and color if they suspect it is changing. Remember to check hard-to-reach areas, like between toes, under nail beds, and between the buttocks. Using a mirror or enlisting the help of a trusted partner can result in a more comprehensive self-check. Report any changes or suspicious growths to your doctor or dermatologist.
Early detection and treatment are essential to reduce the risk of melanoma complications. Whether you suspect you have a cancerous growth or simply want to proactively manage risk, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.