Melanoma is one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer and a serious health concern, but melanoma is usually treatable when caught early. According to Dr. Daniel Condie of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Plano and Sherman, Texas, “Melanoma has its deadly reputation because it’s often caught in the advanced stages. In the early stages, melanoma is usually curable.” Keep reading to learn more from Dr. Condie about melanoma and how to reduce your risk of developing this type of skin cancer.
What Is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a serious and potentially deadly form of skin cancer that develops in skin cells called melanocytes. Melanoma is the third most frequently diagnosed type of skin cancer (after basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). Melanoma is more dangerous than the other types because it is more likely to metastasize or spread to other body systems.
There are actually four common types of melanomas:
- Superficial spreading melanoma – This is the most common type. It may develop out of an existing mole, but it can also begin as a newly developing mark. This form of melanoma most often appears on the trunk in both men and women, and on the legs in women. It usually looks like a flat lesion that is asymmetrical with uneven borders, and it may be irregularly colored.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma – Older people are most likely to develop this form of melanoma. This type typically begins much like superficial spreading melanoma on the surface of the skin. Specifically, lentigo maligna melanoma develops on areas of the skin that most often receive sun damage, including the face, neck, ears, arms, and torso. It usually appears flat with blue-black coloring and uneven borders.
- Acral lentiginous melanoma – People of color have a lower risk for melanoma, but if they do develop melanoma, it is more likely to be acral lentiginous melanoma. This type of melanoma frequently develops in nail beds, on the palms of hands, or the soles of feet. It usually looks like a dark brown or black spot.
- Nodular melanoma – This form of melanoma makes up only about 15% of cases, but it is very aggressive. Nodular melanoma grows deeper in the skin and spreads rapidly to other parts of the body. It is most common on the trunk of the body, arms, legs, or on the scalp. Typically, nodular melanoma creates bumps on the skin and can appear dark black, brown, pink, or red on the surface of the skin.
What Does Melanoma Look Like?
According to Dr. Condie, “One of the keys to diagnosing melanoma in the early, treatable stages is to perform regular skin self-exams to look for concerning moles or lesions. That starts by knowing what to look for. Each type of melanoma has a unique appearance, and the appearance of different forms of melanoma vary depending on an individual’s skin tone. Your dermatologist can help you to understand exactly what to look for during an annual dermatologic exam, so don’t hesitate to ask about how to perform the most effective at-home melanoma screening.”
There are some common warning signs you should keep an eye out for during skin self-exams, including examining moles, bumps, scaly patches, and sores for the following common indicators:
- Asymmetry – Half of the lesion looks significantly different from the other half.
- Border – The edges of the lesion are scalloped or uneven.
- Color – The lesion is different in color than other similar marks on your skin or has multiple colors within the same spot
- Diameter – The lesion is larger in diameter than a pencil eraser
- Evolving – The lesion is changing in size, shape, or color
While this is an excellent place to start, it’s not a surefire way to detect melanoma. You should also tell your dermatologist if you notice rashes or sores that don’t heal, bumps that grow larger, or any other unusual changes to your skin or existing moles and dark spots. Dr. Condie says, “At the very least, live by the ugly duckling rule. If you have a lesion that looks significantly different than other moles, dark spots, or bumps on your skin, it’s time to visit the dermatologist.”
What Causes Melanoma?
The melanocyte skin cells are in the upper layer of skin, and they are responsible for producing the skin’s pigment or melanin that determines skin tone. Melanin also provides protection against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Naturally darker-skinned people, who have more protection from their melanin, are less likely to develop melanoma compared with fair-skinned people, who have less protection. UV damage from the sun or tanning beds is by far the leading cause of melanocyte damage that can lead to melanoma, but some other factors can increase the risk for melanoma, including:
- Family history of melanoma
- Past melanoma diagnosis
- Fair skin
- Freckles and moles
- Blonde or red hair
- Blue eyes
- Excessive, repeated, or prolonged sun exposure
- Numerous sunburns, especially severe burns with blistering
- Weakened immune system or taking medications that suppress immune function
- Living at a higher elevation or near the equator
Is Melanoma Curable?
According to Dr. Condie, “When caught in the early stages, melanoma can usually be cured. Unfortunately, many melanoma cases develop and spread quickly, so we don’t begin treatment as early as we would like to. Even for the advanced cases, treatments are continually developing and evolving, allowing us to more effectively treat or manage melanoma in later stages.”
If you suspect you have melanoma, you should schedule a visit with a dermatologist as soon as possible. The first step of treatment is diagnosis and staging. If you have a concerning mole or lesion, your dermatologist will examine the area closely and may use a special tool called a dermatoscope for even closer inspection of the concerning lesion. If the lesion appears irregular, your dermatologist will likely perform a skin biopsy to remove the lesion and send it to the lab for microscopic examination. Ideally, the biopsy is examined under the microscope by a dermatopathologist, a doctor who has extensive training in the diagnosis of melanoma. If the results come back positive for melanoma, your dermatologist will help guide further evaluation and treatment. For many early melanomas, surgery alone is sufficient treatment. If your melanoma is more advanced and there is concern that it has spread, your dermatologist may refer you to another specialist, such as an oncologist or surgical oncologist. These doctors can help guide further evaluation and treatment. There are five stages of melanoma:
- Stage 0 – Melanoma only impacts the epidermis (outer layer of skin).
- Stage 1 – Low-risk, early development that doesn’t show any evidence of spreading.
- Stage 2 – There is some indication that melanoma may recur, but there is little or no sign that it has spread.
- Stage 3 – Melanoma has spread to surrounding skin or adjacent lymph nodes.
- Stage 4 – Melanoma has spread to non-adjacent skin, lymph nodes, or other organs and body systems.
For early melanoma (Stage 0 and Stage 1), your dermatologist may perform surgery to remove the cancer. More advanced melanomas often require care from additional specialists who can check the lymph nodes and other organs for possible spread or metastasis. In addition to surgical treatment, oncologists may offer targeted cancer therapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy to treat the cancer cells.
Can I Prevent Melanoma?
Because melanoma is so closely linked to UV radiation exposure, Dr. Condie says, “The first line of defense against melanoma is limiting sun exposure and protecting your skin with clothing and sunscreen anytime you’re going to be outdoors. After that, your best course of action is to conduct regular skin exams to look for the warning signs of melanoma.” Some tips to protect skin from UV damage and melanoma include:
- Limit your time in the sun, especially during peak hours between 10 am and 4 pm
- Do not use tanning beds or other UV light treatments not performed by a medical professional
- Wear a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every day on your face, hands, and other areas that are exposed to the sun
- If you’re outdoors for prolonged periods, reapply sunscreen to all exposed skin at least every two hours or as directed
- Wear clothing to shields the skin from the sun, seek shade, and take breaks periodically during times of prolonged sun exposure
- Wear hats, sunglasses, and gloves when necessary to protect sensitive skin from damage during prolonged sun exposure
- Use a sun-protecting lip balm
Reach Out to U.S. Dermatology Partners
If you notice any of the common indicators of melanoma, reach out to U.S. Dermatology Partners right away, so we can begin examining, diagnosing, and treating any potential skin cancers in the earliest stages. You can complete our simple online scheduling request anytime, and one of our team members will be in touch to finalize the details of your visit.
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