Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Anyone can get melanoma. When found early and treated, the cure rate is nearly 100%.
Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. Ultraviolet light (UV) from the sun and indoor tanning beds can cause skin cancer. Not all melanomas are caused entirely by UV rays. Heredity also plays a role. Research shows that if a close blood relative (parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle) had melanoma, a person has a much greater risk of getting melanoma.
Some people have a higher risk of developing melanoma including those with:
- Light skin, hair, and eyes
- Fair skin that tans poorly or burns easily
- Red or blond hair
- Blue or green eyes
- 50 or more small moles
- Unusual-looking moles that are often larger than normal and have uneven edges
- Past blistering sunburns or a history of indoor tanning
- A previous melanoma or other skin cancer
- Weak immune system (due to disease, organ transplant, or medicine)
Men over 50 are at a higher risk of developing melanoma compared to the rest of the general public. Melanoma can also affect younger people. In fact, melanoma is the second most common form of cancer in females age 15-29 years old.
Melanoma often appears in an existing mole or looks like a new mole. By knowing where you have moles on your skin, you can find melanoma when it first appears. Here’s what to look for:
- A mole on the skin that is growing, changing shape, or changing color
- A mole that looks scaly, oozes, or bleeds
- New dark spot on the skin that looks like a mole, but grows quickly
- Pain, itch, or bleeding in a new spot on the skin
- Streak (usually brown or black) underneath a fingernail or toenail
- Bruise on the foot that does not heal
Your treatment depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into your skin, whether the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, and your overall health. Treatment often starts with surgery. In its earliest stage, melanoma grows in the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Your dermatologist may refer to this as melanoma in situ or stage 0. In this stage, the cure rate is nearly 100%.
Your dermatologist will want to remove all the cancer. Your dermatologist can perform surgery in their office. You may remain awake during the surgical procedure. There are two common procedures for surgically removing melanoma:
- Excision: Your dermatologist will numb your skin and surgically remove the melanoma. Some of the normal looking skin around the melanoma will also be removed. This procedure is appropriate for most in situ and invasive melanomas.
- Mohs surgery: A dermatologist who has completed additional training in Mohs surgery performs this procedure.
This procedure involves removing the visible skin cancer. The tissue that is removed is examined under a microscope by the Mohs surgeon to determine if there are any cancer cells remaining at any outer edges of the removed tissue. During this time, you remain in the surgical suite or office.
If cancer cells are still present at any edge of the removed tissue, the Mohs surgeon will continue to remove additional layers of skin or underlying affected tissue until cancer cells are no longer seen. This technique allows for the complete removal of the skin cancer, yet minimizes the removal of healthy skin. In most cases, Mohs surgery can be completed within a day or less.
When melanoma is caught early, excision or Mohs surgery may be the only treatment you need.
When melanoma grows deeper into the skin or spreads, treatment becomes more complex. It may begin with a surgery, followed by additional treatment or more surgery. Treatment may also involve radiation therapy or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. Some patients receive immunotherapy to boost their body’s immune system, which increases the body’s abilities to fight the cancer. If the melanoma is advanced, the patient often receives a combination of these treatments.
It is important to note that numerous promising clinical trials are ongoing for the treatment of advanced melanoma.
Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. You can have fun in the sun and decrease your risk of skin cancer. Here’s how:
- Seek shade when appropriate. Remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, where possible.
- Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more to all exposed skin. “Broad-spectrum” provides protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Reapply approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.
- Research has found that daily sunscreen use cuts the incidence of melanoma in half.
- Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chances of sunburn.
- Avoid tanning beds. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer. It can take many shapes and appearances. Melanoma is usually a dark color like brown, blue, or black. Other signs to look for include: irregular borders, asymmetry (one half looks different than the other half), and size – melanomas are usually large (bigger than a pencil eraser)