Skin Cancer Facts: Things to know about melanoma
Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It arises from the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes). It accounts for less than 2 percent of all skin cancers, but the number of cases in the U.S. has been rising over the past 30 years. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, melanoma will account for more than 73,000 cases of skin cancer in 2015.
Like all skin cancers, melanoma is treatable. Early diagnosis is the key as melanoma is highly curable if diagnosed at any early stage. Here are some things to know:
1. Risk factors
Anyone can get melanoma, but some people are at higher risk. There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing melanoma, including:
- having fair skin, light eyes, or blonde or red hair
- older age
- family history of skin cancer
- if you have greater than 50 moles, or large and atypical moles
- having a personal history of other skin cancers (basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma)
It is important to have a good understanding of your family’s medical history as well as an understanding of how your skin reacts to sun exposure.
2. The signs
Typically, melanoma starts as an unusual appearing or new mole that begins to change over time, becoming larger, changing colors, or developing an irregular shape. They are typically black or dark brown, but may be pink, red, blue, purple, or white.
When the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, or metastasized, it is considered advanced melanoma. Additional signs of advanced melanoma may include the development of red or black nodules on the skin distant from the original site or recurring within the previous removal scar. If melanoma spreads to other parts of the body, individuals typically experience systemic symptoms such as extreme fatigue, weight loss, shortness of breath, or abdominal pain.
3. Melanoma can be fast spreading
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer because it can spread rapidly. Left untreated, melanoma can quickly grow into deeper parts of the skin as well as spread to other parts of the body through the blood vessels and lymph nodes. Once within the blood stream or lymph nodes, melanoma can metastasize to far regions of the body.
4. Cancer staging
The stages of cancer estimate how advanced the cancer is and determine prognosis. It’s very important to determine the stage of the cancer in order to decide on the right treatment plan.
Advanced melanoma falls within stage III or stage IV. A stage III cancer means that the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes. Stage IV cancer indicates that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body such as the lungs or brain.
5. Biopsy procedure
Melanoma is diagnosed by a skin or tissue biopsy. This procedure is done by removing a piece of the suspicious growth and examining the tissue under a microscope. Your physician may also elect to perform a sentinel node biopsy to check to see if the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes. Finally, CT scans, PET scans, or an MRI can be used to assess if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.
6. Treatment of Advanced Melanoma
Early stage melanoma can often be effectively treated with surgery alone. Advanced melanoma requires treatment beyond the surgical removal of the melanoma and surrounding lymph nodes. These additional treatments may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or in some cases radiation therapy. The exact course of treatment will be determined by your physician.
If melanoma is diagnosed at an early stage it is highly curable. However, advanced melanoma can spread to lymph nodes and internal organs, which can result in death. We encourage everyone to do monthly self-skin examinations, report new and changing skin lesions, and see your dermatologist for an annual skin check.