Melanoma is a type of skin cancer which develops in the melanocytes. The melanocytes are the cells which produce melanin. Melanin is what gives skin its color. While this is typically where melanoma originates it may also begin in the internal organs or eyes. This is the most serious deadly form of skin cancer.
It is possible for melanoma to develop anywhere on the body although they typically occur in areas that have had direct sun exposure such as arms, legs, face, and back. However, it is possible for melanoma to form on areas that have not received as much direct exposure to the sun such as the palms of hands, soles of feet, or nail beds. These types of melanoma that are more hidden are more common in individuals with darker skin. Early signs include:
- Changes in an existing mole
- Development of an unusual looking or pigmented growth on the skin
Normal moles are found on the majority of the population. People tend to have between 5 and 45 moles which will develop prior to age 40. It is possible for normal moles to change over time and some may eventually disappear. These moles are usually a solid color such as black, brown, or tan and have distinct borders separating them from the surrounding skin. They vary in shape and size but are typically round or oval in shape and smaller than 6 millimeters in diameter. If these normal moles begin to change in appearance a dermatologist should be consulted. To identify abnormal changes think of ABCDE.
• A – Asymmetrical shape – any mole that has an irregular shape
• B – Irregular Border – scalloped or notched borders
• C – Color – moles that have multiple colors or have various shades of the same color
• D – Diameter – moles that grow larger than 6 millimeters
• E – Evolving – changes over time that involve size, shape, and color or if the mole begins to bleed or itch
The ABCDE list provide signs that a mole or growth may be melanoma. If you notice any of these signs you should consult your healthcare provider.
Melanoma is caused when there is a mutation in the melanocyte cells. Typically skin cell development occurs in an uneventful way. Old cells are pushed towards the surface of the skin as healthy new cells develop. The old cells eventually die and fall off the body. However when there is damage to the DNA of these cells they are able to grow in an unregulated way and eventually turn into cancer.
Unfortunately, researchers are still unsure of exactly what causes the damage to the skin cell DNA or how that process leads to melanoma. It is believed that a variety of factors including genetics and the individual’s environment ultimately combine to form melanoma.
However, most doctors do believe that ultraviolet radiation exposure from the sun and devices created to produce a tan are the leading cause of this damage. The fact that ultraviolet radiation does not cause all melanoma, such as those that occur in areas of the body where direct exposure is not possible, indicates other factors must contribute to the development of the cancer.
The most important step individuals can do to identify melanoma is to routinely scan their skin. Self-exams should be done on a regular basis, approximately once a month. During a self-exam individuals should us a full length mirror and a hand-held mirror to closely inspect all areas of the body. It is important to become familiar with normal moles so changes will be noticeable. Once a year, or as often as your physician recommends depending on your age and circumstances, a skin professional should perform an exam as well.
If changes are detected a biopsy of the area must be done to definitively diagnose melanoma. During the procedure a portion of the area, if not the entire area, will be removed and sent to a pathologist. The type of biopsy performed will be based on the type and location of the possible melanoma.
Treatment for melanoma that is caught early is typically removal of the affected area and possibly the skin immediately surrounding it. Advanced melanoma must be treated more aggressively and treatment may include surgical removal of affected lymph nodes, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, and targeted therapy.
Instances of melanoma seem to be on the rise, especially in women under 40. It is important that men and women be aware of the symptoms of skin cancer and that they consult a medical professional when any changes are noticed to ensure early treatment.