Melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer, but accounts for only 1% of all skin cancer cases. It can occur on body parts that are not usually exposed to the sun. When melanoma is found early it can be cured with surgery.
Melanoma can occur at any age, but the average age at diagnosis is 65. However, melanoma is the most common malignancy in women aged 25-29, and is often found in people younger than 55.
Types of melanoma
There are several types of melanoma but the most common type, accounting for 70% of cases, is superficial spreading melanoma. It usually develops from a pigmented mole that has been previously stable.
Melanoma can be found anywhere on the body, but the most common locations are on the trunk of men and the lower extremities of women.
What causes melanoma?
Recent research suggests that there are two ways that ultraviolet rays from the sun are linked to melanoma. First, people with melanoma frequently have a history of sunburns as children. UV radiation damages the DNA in melanocytes, the skin cells that give our skin its color. This damage initiates the development of melanoma that may not be diagnosed until later in life, in body areas not typically exposed to the sun as an adult. Secondly, chronic sun exposure also contributes to melanoma development.
What are the risk factors?
- People with red hair, fair skin, freckles and an inability to tan
- A family history of melanoma or other skin cancer
- A family history of multiple, irregular, prominent moles
- A family history of pancreatic cancer or astrocytoma – a brain tumor
- Parkinson’s patients have a higher risk of developing melanoma, and people with melanoma have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s.
- A history of acute, severe, blistering sunburns as a child, especially on body areas not usually exposed to the sun.
What are the symptoms?
Melanoma forms in existing moles or as a new growth. Some moles are present at birth, but most are acquired through childhood. Cancerous moles may change in shape, size, and color.
The ABCDE’s of melanoma
- Asymmetry of moles and birthmarks.
- B Irregular borders that are ragged, notched or blurred.
- C The color is not uniform. Instead the mole tends to be dark black, blue, gray, multiple shades of brown or mixed.
- D When the spot is larger than 5 mm or about the size of a pencil eraser.
- E The mole is changing in size, shape or color.
A board-certified dermatologist will review your medical history with you and conduct a full body skin examination because most melanomas are found during this procedure, not because of a complaint or concern about a mole or its appearance. During the skin exam, the lesions will be evaluated using a specialized tool called a dermatoscope, which magnifies the features of moles and can help discern benign from more worrisome spots. The dermatologist may take photos of suspicious lesions and/or take a skin biopsy which involves numbing the area and removing all or part of the suspicious lesion.
The biopsy is sent to a lab for microscopic analysis to confirm a diagnosis. The lab will also report the type of melanoma and how deep it is in the skin. Based on the stage of the melanoma, your board-certified dermatologist will offer a customized treatment plan that may include other specialists.
What are the treatment options?
Treatment is determined by the stage of the melanoma. Oftentimes, surgery and close follow-up is all that is needed.
The goal of surgery is to remove all of the cancer. The type of surgery depends on the location, size, depth and spread of the tumor. When the cancer cannot be removed completely with surgery, other treatments may be combined to help kill the cancer cells.
When you or a loved one has a suspicious mole, contact Phoenix Surgical Dermatology Group to schedule a consultation. Life is precious. Don’t wait.