What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is the most dangerous common form of skin cancer, and can arise as a growing, darkening, changing, or bleeding mole. Although exposure to the sun increases the chance of getting melanoma, it can occur anywhere on the body. With regular skin checks and close communication with a dermatologist, patients with melanoma may have a greater than 80% cure rate.
Spots that raise concern for a possible melanoma are often new moles that are:
- Rapidly growing
- Very dark in color
- Contain more than one color
- Have uneven borders, are particularly large
- Are generally changing
About half of melanomas may arise in a pre-existing mole. Many dermatologists recommend following the “ABCDE’s of melanoma” to identify a concerning mole:
- A- asymmetry. Can you fold the mole in half and do the sides match up?
- B- border. Is the border of the mole smooth and round?
- C- color. Is the mole a single uniform color?
- D- diameter. Is the mole smaller than a pencil eraser?
- E- evolution and everything else. Has the mole stayed the same over time? Does it cause you concern for any other reason?
If you answer “no” to one or more of these questions, it may be worth having your moles evaluated by a dermatologist.
Melanoma occurs most commonly in men and women in their 50’s, but is often diagnosed in younger and older patients as well, especially in those with a strong history of sun exposure or strong family history of melanoma. Women develop melanoma more often on the legs, and in men it occurs more on the upper back.
A few of the various types of melanoma include:
This kind of melanoma is seen more in older patients with a great deal of sun damage, and may soon be the most common form of melanoma. It may be considered “safer” because it is seen only in the top layers of the skin.
Superficial spreading melanoma
This is usually considered the most common form of melanoma in adults. This type may appear in a pre-existing mole or may arise as a “new mole.”
This type of melanoma is most common in Asian and other dark skinned populations, including African Americans. “Acral” indicates it occurs on the fingers or toes. Bob Marley actually died of this kind of melanoma at the young age of 36.
Although typically described as very dark brown, melanomas can actually be red, black, blue, or even white. It can also occur in the mouth, the back of the eye, or the genitalia.
If you have a history of melanoma, it is important to see your dermatologist frequently as well as an eye doctor, dentist, and OB/GYN if you are female. You should also keep up to date on other routine cancer screenings.
Melanoma of the skin is usually diagnosed with a skin biopsy in the dermatologist’s office. The biopsy specimen is then sent to a pathologist, who looks under a microscope for cancer cells. Melanoma treatment success and prognosis depend on the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. If caught early, or in stage I, there is a greater than 80% cure rate.
After melanoma is diagnosed, a skin surgery is performed to fully remove the cancer. Lymph node biopsies may also be recommended, as well as referral to a cancer doctor. If the melanoma has metastasized, or spread, the cancer doctor will plan for chemotherapy or radiation.