What is Melanoma Cancer?
Melanoma is a skin cancer which is formed in the cells which create melanin. Melanin is the pigment which gives the color to the skin.
Melanoma cancer is not the most common type of skin cancer but it is the most dangerous. And sometimes, melanoma cancer can also form in the eyes or internal organs like the intestines.
The exact reason for melanoma cancer is not known. However, over exposure to the harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun and tanning lamps or beds increases the risk of getting melanoma cancer. Women under the age of 40 are more prone to developing melanoma cancer.
Knowledge of the early signs of melanoma cancer is good health tool to have. This helps you detect the cancer at an early stage so accurate treatment can be administered before it spreads further. The more the cancer spreads, the more complicated the treatment and recovery become.
What are the signs of melanoma cancer?
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body. However the most affects body areas are those which are most exposed to the sun: back, legs, arms and face.
Melanoma can also develop in areas not exposed to the sun like the soles of the feet, the space between toes, palms, scalps, genitals and fingernail beds.
This type of melanoma cancer is termed ‘hidden melanoma’ since it develops in places which one least expects and the cancer often goes unnoticed. Hidden melanoma develops mostly in darker skinned people.
Like any other types of cancer, melanoma cancer does not show any signs or symptoms in the initial stages. Therefore, it is important to be aware of, and alert to, any signs and symptoms of this cancer on the skin. Prompt attention and treatment are recommended.
A change in the appearance of the skin is one of the main signs of melanoma cancer. 5 other symptoms that can indicate this type of cancer are:
- Any kind of skin change which includes a new mole or change in the size, shape and color of the existing moles on the skin
- Sores on the skin which do not heal
- Moles, spots or sores which gradually become itchy, painful or which bleed
- Red lump which bleeds or looks ulcerated
- Red spots which are rough, dry or scaly
Consult your doctor immediately if you notice any unusual skin changes.
What are the causes of melanoma cancer?
Melanoma occurs when the pigment producing cells i.e. melanocytes get affected and gradually become cancerous. Healthy skin develops in a systematic manner: New cells push the older cells towards the surface of the skin and the older skin eventually dies and falls off.
However, DNA damage on cells can make them grow without any control and slowly turn into a mass of cancerous cells. It is not known exactly how and why the DNA of the skin cells gets damaged. It is possible that a mix of environmental and genetic factors damages the cells and causes melanoma cancer.
13 Factors which increase the risk of developing melanoma cancer include:
- A fair complexion with less skin pigments; this can lead to lowered protection from harmful UV radiation.
- A high tendency of developing freckles or sunburn.
- Red or blond hair
- Light-colored eyes
- Pale skin that does not tan easily
- One or more sunburns on the skin
- Over-exposure to UV rays from sun, tanning lights and beds
- Living in locations which are closer to the equator or in a higher elevation where there is more exposure to the UV rays
- More number of moles on the body
- Family history of melanoma cancer
- Weak immune system due to some organ transplant
- Age – elderly people are more likely to develop melanoma cancer
- Gender – Women are more prone than men to develop this type of skin cancer
What are the tests and diagnosis?
People who observe any unusual signs or growth on their skin can first visit their family doctor. After examining the skin and checking the results of the test, the doctor will refer the person to a dermatologist or oncologist. 2 tests which are routinely conducted for screening the skin are:
- Screening of the skin by a professional – In this method, a trained professional conducts a complete inspection of the skin to check for any signs or symptoms of cancer.
- Screening of the skin at home – A self-examination is done to check moles, freckles and any other growth or skin marks which are tracked for any changes. It is recommended to stand in front of a mirror and use a small hand mirror to check parts of the body which are difficult to see in a full mirror. A complete check should be done of the front, back and side of the arms, legs, soles, palms, fingernails, scalp and spaces between the toes.
Sometimes it is possible to diagnose skin cancer by just looking at the skin. But the most accurate method of diagnosing melanoma cancer is a biopsy. This procedure involves extracting a sample of the mole or growth which is then sent for analysis. 3 biopsy procedures include:
- Punch biopsy – In this procedure, the doctor uses a circular blade which is placed around the suspicious mole or growth on the skin and a round piece of skin is extracted.
- Excisional Biopsy – In this procedure, the entire mole or growth is extracted along with a small portion of the skin surrounding the mole.
- Incisional Biopsy – In this procedure. only the suspicious part of the mole or growth is extracted
If a person is diagnosed with melanoma cancer, the doctor will next determine the stage of the cancer by following the steps below:
- The thickness of the melanoma is determined by closely examining it with a microscope or micrometer. Based on the thickness, the doctor will be in a position to design a treatment plan. The thicker the melanoma cancer, the more serious it is.
- To check if the melanoma is spread to the nearby lymph node, a sentinel node biopsy is conducted.
What is the treatment and medication for melanoma cancer?
Treatment will vary depending upon the stage of the cancer as well as the overall health condition of the afflicted person.
If melanoma is detected in the early stages, it can be surgically removed. If the melanoma cancer is very small, it can be removed completely in the biopsy and requires no surgery.
However, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, treatment(s) include:
- In cases where the cancer has spread to the nearby lymph nodes, the doctor will remove the affected nodes surgically.
- Chemotherapy – Cancer cells are killed with drugs.
- Radiation therapy – High-powered energy beams are used to kill the cancer cells. This method is also practised post-surgery to remove cancer cells from nearby lymph nodes.
- Biological therapy – In this the immune system is strengthened to make it able to fight the cancer cells
- Targeted therapy – Specific medications target vulnerable cancer cells and destroy them completely.
How can melanoma cancer be prevented?
- Avoid being in the sun in the afternoon when the sun is really harsh: there is a greater possibility of being affected by the UV rays. Plan outdoor activities in the morning or evening so there is a lesser risk of sun over-exposure. Avoid sunburns and do not sun-tan. There are more chances of the skin getting damaged, thus increasing the risk of developing skin cancer.
- Use sunscreen creams and lotions throughout the year: even though they do not filter the UV rays, they help with protection from the sun. If people sweat more or swim, they must re-apply sunscreen more frequently in the day.
- Wear clothes which protect the skin from the sun, the arms and legs. Wear a hat instead of a cap for increased protection. Also wear polarised sunglasses which prevent UV radiation.
- Don’t use tanning lamps and beds since they emit harmful UV rays which can damage skin.
- Get to know your skin and its condition: Check it regularly, making a note of moles or growths, freckles and birthmarks. Examine any skin which is exposed to the sun as well as that which is hidden. Melanoma cancer can develop anywhere on the body surface.
Matt Bailey is a writer, content marketer and Social Strategist at FindaTopDoc. Find a best Local Doctor by Specialty and Insurance.
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