In the field of dermatology, skin cancer is one of the most serious health concerns dermatologists treat on a regular basis. Of the common forms of skin cancer, melanoma poses the greatest risk to our patients’ overall health. According to Dr. Tiffany Tello of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Denver, Colorado, “Many patients ask me if melanoma is deadly. Left untreated, many forms of skin cancer have the potential to cause significant harm, but melanoma is, by far, responsible for the most skin cancer-related deaths. Luckily, most types of skin cancer are highly treatable, so conducting regular self-skin exams and visiting your dermatologist once a year (more often if you have had a skin cancer in the last 2 years) for a professional exam will decrease your risk.” In this blog, Dr. Tello walks through the answers to common questions about melanoma.
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that originates in the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. When exposed to sunlight, melanocytes are triggered to produce melanin which is responsible for the skin’s pigmentation. This is the reason that the skin may tan after sun exposure. Melanoma occurs when the sun damages the melanocytes, causing irregular or uncontrolled growth of cancerous cells.
While melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, it’s the type of skin cancer most likely to develop quickly and metastasize to other organs and body systems.
Melanoma is often placed into one of the following categories:
- Superficial spreading melanoma – The most common type of melanoma, it can develop within existing moles or as a new occurrence. Superficial spreading melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, but is most commonly found on the lower extremities in women and back in men and women. It often presents as a flat or slightly raised lesion with multiple shades of brown, red, blue, black, grey, or white.
- Acral lentiginous melanoma – Most common in people of color, this type of melanoma is notoriously difficult to spot as it often develops in difficult to see areas like the fingernail and toenail beds, palms of the hands, or soles of the feet. It accounts for less than 5% of all melanomas.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma – Most common in chronically sun-damaged skin of older adults, this type of melanoma accounts for 10-15% of all melanomas. These lesions typically appear on the face, head, ears, arms, and upper body, especially on skin that has received frequent sun exposure. They often present as a tan or brown flat lesion that gradually enlarges and changes in color over years.
- Nodular melanoma – This is the most aggressive subtype of melanoma and accounts for approximately 15% of cases. These tumors develop deeper in the skin’s layers, and they evolve more rapidly. They are more likely to spread to other organs and tissue.
What are the Signs of Melanoma?
According to Dr. Tello, “Because melanoma has the potential to spread and become a life-threatening malignancy, it is essential for patients to know the warning signs and take action if they notice any changes in their skin. Specifically, you should let your dermatologist know right away if you notice any of the ABCDEs of skin cancer.”
The ABCDEs of skin cancer are a simple way of remembering the main warning signs for melanoma. Specifically:
- A – Asymmetry – One part of the lesion looks or feels different from the other part
- B – Border – Rather than a smooth circular border, the lesion may have scalloped or uneven edges
- C – Color – May be a different color than other moles or the lesion may be more than one color
- D – Diameter – Moles or skin lesions that are larger in diameter than the eraser on a number two pencil should be examined by a professional
- E – Evolution – Moles or lesions are quickly developing or changing
So, Is Melanoma Deadly?
Dr. Tello says, “When it comes to answering this question, I like to tell patients there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, with early detection, melanoma responds very well to treatment. In fact, people diagnosed with the earliest stage melanoma (melanoma in situ) have over a 99% survival rate after five years if the skin cancer is detected and treated appropriately. The survival rate for melanoma drops significantly once melanoma metastasizes, so catching melanoma in the early stages is essential. That’s why I always emphasize the importance of completing regular self-skin exams and visiting the dermatologist for a professional skin cancer evaluation.”
How is Melanoma Treated?
There are numerous treatments available to address skin cancer, and your dermatologist will partner with you to determine the best plan for your specific needs, depending on the stage it’s discovered at, size, location, and wide range of other variables. In the early stages, surgical removal may be all that’s necessary. Once melanoma has progressed into the lymph nodes or other parts of the body, more advanced treatment options like immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or radiation may be necessary.
Can I Prevent Melanoma?
Like all forms of skin cancer, sun exposure is the most common cause of melanoma, so the longer you are exposed to UVA/B rays, the more you’ll increase your risk of developing skin cancers, including melanoma. By limiting your time spent in the sun, wearing (and reapplying) a broad-spectrum sunscreen, and covering skin when possible, you’ll drastically diminish your risk for all skin cancers, including melanoma. In addition to limiting sun exposure, you should also perform regular skin exams to check for the ABCDEs of skin cancer as well as visiting with a dermatologist once each year (or more often if you have a recent history of skin cancer) for a professional skin exam. This is especially important if you are at a higher risk for skin cancer. People who are at an elevated risk for skin cancer include those who have:
- History of extensive sun exposure
- History of sunburns, specifically blistering sunburns
- Used indoor tanning beds
- A weakened immune system
- Numerous moles (the more moles you have the higher your risk for melanoma)
- Light-colored (fair) skin, especially if they have light eyes and light hair
- A personal or family history of skin cancer
Ready to Schedule Your Annual Skin Exam at U.S. Dermatology Partners?
Whether you’ve noticed an odd lesion during your regular skin self-exams or it’s time for your annual professional skin cancer screening, don’t hesitate to reach out to the knowledgeable, board-certified dermatologists at U.S. Dermatology Partners to get started. You can complete our simple online scheduling request form to begin the process. Once we receive your request, a team member will be in touch to finalize the details of your appointment request.
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