Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, which develops in the melanocytes of the skin. Melanocytes are the cells that produce a pigment called ‘melanin’ that is responsible for the skin complexion. It is a less common but a serious type of skin cancer, which can easily spread to the other parts of the body. Melanoma can sometimes begin in the eyes and rarely in the internal organs, such as the intestine. Early detection of the melanoma can help in successful treatment.
Melanoma produces fewer symptoms in its early stages. The following symptoms may indicate a melanoma:
- Appearance of a new mole or a spot
- Change in color, size or shape of the existing mole or spot
- Failure of the skin sores to heal
- Itching, tenderness, and bleeding from the sore or spot
- Formation of a shiny, smooth, waxy, and pale colored spots or lumps
- Formation of a flat, rough, dry, and scaly red spots
- Emergence of red lumps, which appear crusty and ulcerated
The signs and symptoms are abbreviated as ‘ABCDE’ and are helpful for a patient to suspect a skin cancer. ABCDE is elaborated as:
- Asymmetry – the two fractions of the mole are different from each other
- Border – the spots or sores have irregular, uneven, and rough borders
- Color – the color of the spot is different from the other moles and can include the
shades of black, brown, white, and blue
- Diameter – the spot is bigger than 6 mm in diameter
- Evolving – the appearance of the mole changes with time
Melanoma occurs when the DNA of melanocyte cells get mutated. Consequently, the ability of the cells to control the cell division is impaired and the cells undergo repeated division to form a mass of cells known as a tumor. However, the exact cause of this mutation is not clear yet.
Although melanoma can develop on any area of the skin, it is more common in the trunk region in men while in women the legs are most commonly affected. Additionally, melanoma is common on face and neck in both the genders.
The following are the risk factors for developing melanoma:
- Excessive exposure to the sunlight, especially leading to sunburns
- Being a female
- Pale or light-colored skin
- A family history of melanoma
- Presence of five or more atypical moles
- Red or light-colored hair
- Having an organ transplant
Diagnosis of melanoma begins with the physical examination of the skin for changes in its appearance. However, a biopsy is required to confirm the condition. The following biopsy procedures are used to diagnose melanoma:
- An Excisional biopsy involves the removal of entire mole or spot along with a portion of the surrounding skin.
- An Incisional biopsy consists of the removal of only the most irregular portion of the mole or spot.
- A Punch biopsy includes the removal of a round piece of skin containing the suspicious mole using a specialized tool.
The collected biopsy sample is examined under a microscope for any abnormalities which might indicate a melanoma. Further, the doctor will determine the stage of the melanoma based on the thickness and the extent of the cancer.
Treatment is based on the stage and size of cancer, overall health, and personal preferences of the patient. Treatment approaches are as follows:
- Early stages of melanoma are treated by surgical removal of the entire melanoma or sometimes along with a portion of the surrounding skin.
- If the melanoma has spread to the other parts, then surgery is suggested with other treatment options, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and biological therapy.
The below steps can help to prevent melanoma to some extent:
- Avoiding excess exposure to sun
- Using sunscreen lotions for prolonged exposures to the sun
- Avoiding the use of tanning beds
- Wearing protective clothing to reduce exposure to the UV light