Melanoma is a type of skin cancer associated with excess exposure to UV rays and tanning booths. Melanoma originates from certain cells in the skin called melanocytes, which contains the pigment melanin that influences skin color. If left untreated, melanoma spreads quickly and leads to death. Although melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer, it is the most dangerous and has the highest number of deaths assigned to it. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun, tanning booths, etc. can damage DNA in skin cells. When melanocytes with damaged DNA start dividing uncontrollably, they give rise to malignant tumors in the skin or melanoma.
Signs of Melanoma
- New growths like moles appear on the skin
- Existing growths start to change in color
- Existing growths start to get larger
- Skin lesions
- Itching or bleeding from skin growths or lesions
The ABCDE of Melanoma
A general method to check for skin melanomas is the ABCDE method which is as below:
- Asymmetry – the mole or skin growth is asymmetrical.
- Border – the border of the growth is not smooth but irregular.
- Color – the growth is multicolored.
- Diameter – moles larger than 6mm could be melanomas.
- Enlarging or evolving – the growth changes in shape, color, and size.
If you notice any of these signs you should contact your doctor at the earliest possible time.
Regarding successful treatment of melanoma, people have different opinions on what constitutes a ‘cure’, especially when it comes to cancers like melanoma. Because many cancers may recur after treatment, most health professionals measure cancer success rates as 5-year survival rate, which is the percentage of patients surviving five years after diagnosis of cancer.
Melanoma is treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Newly developed treatments such as biological therapy (boosting the immune system to fight cancer cells) and targeted therapy (using medicines that target vulnerabilities of cancer cells) are used in certain advanced cases of melanoma.
Is Melanoma a Treatable Condition?
Yes, but it really depends on the extent of cancer during the start of treatment. Advanced stages of melanoma cases have much lower survival rates and fewer chances of responding to treatments. Melanoma at stages 3 to 4 are much harder to treat because they have already spread to other parts of the body and are therefore less responsive to chemotherapy.
Here is the simplified guide for staging melanoma, along survival rates during treatment.
Stage 0 and 1
Melanoma, at this stage, is located only on the top layer of the skin and has not spread to other areas of the body. The melanoma lesion is very thin, less than 1 millimeter in thickness, and the surface of the affected skin is not broken.
At this stage, the 5-year survival rates are as high as 98.4%. This explains why doctors stress checking moles for warning signs such as asymmetry or varied color, irregular or poorly defined border, changes in size, shape, and color.
The melanoma lesion is thicker than 1 millimeter and more advanced cases have broken skin or ulceration. There is no sign that cancer has spread to lymph nodes or to other parts of the body.
Stage 2 melanoma still has good rates of successful treatment, with 5-year survival rates ranging from 80% to almost 90%.
This stage is characterized by the spread of melanoma to up to three lymph nodes near the primary tumor or lesion. Cancer cells spread by affecting the lymph nodes nearest from the primary site.
Stage 3 melanoma cases have survival rates of around 50%.
The cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). The 5-year survival rates for stage 4 melanoma is very low, around 10% only.
However, new treatments like biological and targeted therapies are now available for patients with stage-4 melanoma. These new medicines may prove effective in prolonging survival rates of patients with advanced stages of melanoma.
It is safe to say that melanoma is treatable if addressed in its early stages (1 and 2). In such cases, there is no spread of cancer cells from the primary lesion so it can be removed with surgery. For small and very thin melanoma lesions, the doctor may simply shave it off the skin.
Treatment of Melanomas
The very first stage of treatment after diagnosis is surgical removal of the tumor. Depending on the size of the tumor, the surgery may be carried out in the doctor’s clinic under local anesthesia or might require the patient to be admitted to the hospital. Surgery is very effective in treating stage 1 and stage 2 melanomas.
In the more advanced stages, such as stages 3 and 4, the melanomas cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. In these cases, additional treatments besides the surgical removal of the tumor are required. These additional treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.
Early Treatment Is Very Important
Fortunately, most cases of melanoma lead to a successful cure, and it kills far fewer patients compared to other types of cancers. Therefore, if you have a mole that you suspect to be a melanoma, do not panic. Instead of making a living will and saying last goodbyes to friends and family, have the suspicious mole seen by a doctor right away. Chances are it is still shallow and easily removed in a simple procedure at the doctor’s office.
Melanoma can be prevented by taking some simple precautions in your day-to-day life. These precautions include:
- Avoiding the sun during mid-day – For individuals living in North America, the sunlight is strongest between around 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thus, it is recommended to schedule any outdoor activities for a different time of day. This is true even in the winter season when the skies are cloudy.
- Wear a sunscreen all year-round – Sunscreens do not filter out all dangerous UV radiation, especially the radiation that can potentially cause melanoma. However, they can play an important role in overall sun protection. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. If you are perspiring or swimming, it is recommended to use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen that contains an SPF of at least 30.
- Wear clothing that is protective – Sunscreens do not provide total protection from UV rays. Therefore, it is important to wear darker, tightly woven clothes that cover your legs and arms. Also, wear a hat that is broad-brimmed and provides better protection than a standard visor or baseball cap.
- Avoid use of tanning beds and lamps – A tanning bed or lamp emits UV rays and increases your risk of cancer.
- Be aware of skin changes – Examine your skin on a regular basis to check for any changes to existing moles, new growths on the skin, bumps, freckles, and birthmarks.
By following these tips, you can lower your risk of developing skin cancer.