Melanomas are the most serious type of skin cancer. They develop when there is uncontrolled growth of the pigment-producing cells of your skin, known as melanocytes). Melanomas may appear on the skin as a new lesion or may occur within an existing mole.

When detected early, melanomas are highly curable. Unfortunately, however, melanomas can be life threatening. Advanced melanomas can spread (metastasize) to lymph nodes or internal organs, especially the lungs, liver, and brain.

Melanoma 2

Melanomas are typically found on sun-exposed areas of the body, but they can occur anywhere on the body. Men tend to develop melanomas on the head, neck, and truck, whereas women tend to develop melanomas on the arms and legs.

Melanoma Signs and Symptoms

Melanomas may appear occur as a new mole on your skin or as a change within an existing mole. So, it is especially important to examine your skin routinely. This means to look over your entire body, including palms, soles, fingers, and toes.

The ABCDE checklist is a helpful tool to identify a skin lesion that may be a melanoma:

  • A – Asymmetry: One half of the skin lesion looks different than the other half.
  • B – Border: The outline of the skin lesion is irregular, not smooth, or poorly defined.
  • C – Color: The color of the skin lesion has may shades or more than one color, such as brown, black, red, and/or white.
  • D – Diameter: The skin lesion is larger than 6 mm (1/4 inch).
  • E – Evolving: The skin lesion has changed in size, shape, or color over time.

In sum, you should have a skin lesion evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist if you notice a new mole, a mole that looks different from other moles on your skin, a mole that has changed in any way, or a mole that itches, bleeds, or is painful (even if it is smaller than 6mm).

Causes of Melanoma

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight and tanning bed use is thought to be the leading cause of melanomas. Other possible factors include genetics and immune system deficiencies.

Studies have shown that you have increased risk of developing a melanoma if you have one or more of the following:

  • Fair skin, light eyes, or a tendency to freckle,
  • More than 50 moles, large moles, or unusual moles,
  • Family history of melanoma, particularly first-degree relatives (e.g., parents, brothers, or sisters),
  • History of sunburns,
  • History of excessive sun exposure or indoor tanning bed use,
  • History of a previous melanoma or another type of skin cancer (e.g., Basal Cell Carcinomas and Squamous Cell Carcinomas),
  • History of other previous cancers such as breast or thyroid cancer, and/or
  • Have a decreased immune system such as in patients with organ transplants.

Self-Care for Melanoma

Prevention is key! Sun protection can help reduce the development of melanomas.

  • Use sunscreen on all exposed skin before going outdoors. Be sure the sunscreen has broad spectrum coverage which blocks both UVA and UVB light, with an SPF of at least 30 or more. Remember to reapply every 2 hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid sun exposure during peak hours (from 10 am to 3 pm).
  • Cover up. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and tightly-woven clothing that protects your arms and legs.
  • Avoid tanning bed use.
  • Perform self-skin exams monthly. Monitor your skin lesions for any changes in size, shape, color, and/or skin symptoms (such as, itching, bleeding, or pain).

Melanoma Treatment

If a skin lesion is concerning for a melanoma, a skin biopsy will first be performed to establish a correct diagnosis. A skin biopsy consists of removing the concerning lesion and then examining the specimen under the microscope to determine the diagnosis.

Prognosis and treatment depends on:

  1. How deep the melanoma has grown into the skin, and
  2. Whether the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body.

If the melanoma is thin (less than 0.75 mm), surgical excision may be sufficient. Surgical excision involves cutting out the melanoma as well as some healthy skin around the melanoma.

If the melanoma is thicker, a biopsy of the adjacent lymph nodes to determine if they contain melanoma cells (known as, a sentinel lymph node biopsy) may be recommended. If these lymph nodes do have melanoma cells, surgical removal of other lymph nodes (known as, a lymphadenectomy) may then be indicated.

Treatment of advanced melanomas is quite complex and challenging. Melanomas that have grown deeper into the skin or have spread may require one or more of the following:

  • Immunotherapy,
  • Targeted drug therapy,
  • Chemotherapy, and/or
  • Radiation therapy.

Once diagnosed and treated for a melanoma, an individual is at increased risk of developing a subsequent melanoma, especially in the first 3 years after diagnosis. Thus, it is critically important to schedule skin examinations on a routine basis with a board-certified dermatologist.

If you are interested in learning more about treatment options for your Melanoma, please call Heller Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery to schedule your appointment!