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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

What Is Melanoma, How Do You Spot It And How To Treat It?

Written by Cancer Care Parcel on 
19th April, 2023
Updated: 29th January, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

Melanoma is a serious and potentially life-threatening form of cancer that can spread rapidly to other parts of the body. Early detection and treatment are critical for successful outcomes, but many people are unaware of the signs and symptoms of melanoma. Here we will explore what melanoma is, how it can be spotted, and the various treatment options available for those diagnosed with this disease. By the end, you should have a better understanding of melanoma and how to take steps to protect yourself against this dangerous form of cancer.

What is melanoma skin cancer?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in the cells that produce pigment, known as melanocytes. When these cells grow uncontrollably, they can form a malignant tumor that can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

About melanoma skin cells

As stated above, melanoma cells are the cancerous cells that form in the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes are responsible for producing melanin, which is the pigment that gives color to the skin, hair, and eyes. Melanoma cells can develop anywhere on the body, but they most commonly occur on areas of skin that have been exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, arms, and legs.

Melanoma cells can look like normal moles or spots on the skin, but they typically have irregular or asymmetrical shapes, uneven or jagged borders, and may vary in color or size. Unlike normal moles, melanoma cells can grow and spread quickly to other parts of the body if left untreated, which is why early detection and treatment is crucial.

Under a microscope, melanoma cells appear as large, irregularly shaped cells with an abnormally high number of nuclei. Melanoma cells can also have a characteristic appearance of dark pigment or melanin granules within the cell. In advanced cases, melanoma cells may invade nearby tissues and organs, such as lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bones, or brain, making it more difficult to treat and potentially fatal.

Researchers continue to study melanoma cells to better understand the mechanisms of the disease and develop new treatments to target and eliminate them. Advances in technology and research have led to the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies, which are often more effective and less toxic than traditional chemotherapy for melanoma treatment.

Where does melanoma occur?

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body where there are melanocytes. It can develop on both sun-exposed and non-sun-exposed areas of the skin, including the face, neck, arms, legs, torso, scalp, and even inside the mouth, nose, and eyes. In rare cases, melanoma can also occur in other parts of the body, such as the digestive tract, urinary tract, and reproductive organs, but it is most commonly found on the skin of the face, neck, arms, and legs.

What is melanoma caused by?

The exact cause of melanoma is not fully understood, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds is a major risk factor for melanoma, and prolonged exposure to UV radiation can cause damage to the DNA in skin cells, which can lead to the development of cancerous cells.

In addition to UV radiation, other environmental factors that may contribute to the development of melanoma include exposure to chemicals, such as certain industrial chemicals, and viral infections, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Genetic factors also play a role in the development of melanoma. Inherited mutations in certain genes, such as the CDKN2A or CDK4 genes, can increase the risk of getting melanoma, so individuals who have family who have had melanoma are also at an increased risk of developing the disease.

Who is at risk of getting melanoma skin cancer?

Everyone can develop melanoma skin cancer, but some individuals are at a higher risk than others. The main risk factors for developing melanoma include:

  • Sun exposure: As already stated, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbed increases the risk of getting melanoma. People who spend prolonged periods in the sun without proper protection are at an increased risk.
  • Skin type: Individuals with fair skin, light-colored eyes, and light-colored hair are more susceptible to developing melanoma.
  • Family history: A family history of melanoma increases the risk of developing the disease. People who have first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) with melanoma are at an increased risk.
  • Previous melanoma: People who have had melanoma before are at a higher risk of developing it again.
  • Weakened immune system: People with weakened immune systems, such as those who have had an organ transplant or who are undergoing chemotherapy, are at an increased risk.
  • Age: Melanoma can occur at any age, but it is more commonly diagnosed in individuals over the age of 50.
  • Certain medical conditions: People with dysplastic nevus syndrome and xeroderma pigmentosum are more susceptible to melanoma

It is important to note that while these risk factors increase the likelihood of developing melanoma, anyone can develop the disease regardless of their risk factors. Practicing sun safety, avoiding sunbeds, and undergoing regular skin checks by a dermatologist are important measures to reduce the risk of developing melanoma and detect it early when it is most treatable.

Is melanoma serious cancer?

Yes, melanoma is a serious and potentially life-threatening form of cancer. If left untreated, melanoma can quickly spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bones, and brain, making it more difficult to treat and potentially fatal. However, if detected and treated early, melanoma can often be cured with a high success rate. It is important to note that not all melanomas are the same, and some may be more aggressive and difficult to treat than others. Factors such as the thickness and stage of the melanoma, as well as the patient's age, overall health, and medical history, can all play a role in determining the prognosis and treatment options for melanoma.

How common is melanoma?

While melanoma accounts for only about 1% of all skin cancers, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths.

The incidence of melanoma varies widely by country, and can also vary within a country due to differences in factors such as skin type, sun exposure, and genetics. Here are some estimated incidence rates for melanoma in different countries, based on the most recent data available:

  • United Kingdom: In 2018, there were 16,200 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in the UK, with a rate of 25 cases per 100,000 people. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK.
  • Australia: Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, with an estimated 15,805 new cases diagnosed in 2020. The incidence rate is 62 cases per 100,000 people.
  • Canada: In 2020, it is estimated that there were 7,800 new cases of melanoma in Canada, with an incidence rate of 20 cases per 100,000 people.
  • India: Melanoma is relatively rare in India, with an estimated incidence rate of less than 1 case per 100,000 people. However, the incidence rate may be increasing due to factors such as increasing sun exposure and changing lifestyles.
  • France: In 2018, there were approximately 16,000 new cases of melanoma in France, with an incidence rate of 25 cases per 100,000 people.
  • Germany: In 2018, there were approximately 28,000 new cases of melanoma in Germany, with an incidence rate of 34 cases per 100,000 people.
  • In the United States, melanoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2022, an estimated 106,110 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States, with an estimated 7,180 of those cases resulting in death.

It's important to note that these incidence rates may vary depending on the specific data source and year.

Can you prevent getting melanoma?

Can you prevent getting melanoma?

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent skin cancer, there are several ways you can reduce your risk of getting melanoma and catch any skin changes early, which can lead to more effective melanoma treatment. It's also important to talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your skin, as early detection and treatment can improve outcomes.

Here are some tips:

  1. Limit your exposure to UV radiation: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds is a major risk factor for melanoma. Try to avoid being in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are the strongest. Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and reapply it every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
  2. Check your skin regularly: Regular self-exams can help you detect skin changes early. Look for new moles or growths, changes in the size, shape, or color of existing moles, and any sores that don't heal.
  3. Avoid tanning beds: Sunbeds emit UV radiation that can damage your skin and increase your risk of melanoma.
  4. Be aware of your family history: If you have a family history of melanoma, you may be at higher risk of developing skin cancer. Talk to your doctor about whether you should have regular skin exams or genetic testing.
  5. Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding tobacco can all help reduce your risk of melanoma.

Is melanoma curable?

Melanoma is often curable if it is detected and treated in its early stages. The success of treatment depends on the thickness and stage of the melanoma, as well as the patient's age, overall health, and medical history. Treatments for melanoma may include surgery to remove the cancerous cells or tumor, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. In some cases, a combination of these treatments may be used.

If melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, it becomes more difficult to treat and may require more aggressive therapy. However, even in cases where melanoma has metastasized or spread, there are still treatments available that can help to manage the disease and improve the patient's quality of life.

It is important to note that while melanoma can be cured, regular follow-up appointments and skin exams are necessary to monitor for any signs of recurrence or new melanomas. Additionally, practicing sun safety and avoiding excessive sun exposure can help to prevent the development of new melanomas

What does melanoma look like?

Melanoma is commonly described as a mole or bump with a red bump. Melanoma can present itself in a variety of ways, but the most common signs include changes in the color, size, shape, or texture of a mole or pigmented area of skin. This can include:

  • Asymmetry: If one half of the mole or spot does not match the other half.
  • Border irregularity: The edges of the mole are not smooth and may be uneven or scalloped.
  • Color variation: The mole may have different shades of brown, black, red, white, or blue.
  • Diameter: The mole may be larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolution: The mole may change in size, shape, color, or texture over time, or it may start to itch, bleed, or crust.

Other signs of melanoma can include the appearance of a new mole or spot on the skin, or the development of a non-healing sore or lesion. It is important to note that not all melanomas follow the typical ABCDE guidelines above, and some may not show any visible signs or symptoms at all. Regular skin checks and screenings by a dermatologist can help to identify and diagnose melanoma in its early stages when it is most treatable.

What happens when melanoma is diagnosed?

When melanoma is diagnosed, the next steps will depend on the stage and location of the cancer.

Melanoma is staged based on the thickness of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body. The most commonly used staging system for melanoma is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system, which classifies melanoma into five stages:

  • Stage 0: Melanoma in situ (cancer cells are only in the top layer of skin)
  • Stage I: Thin melanoma (less than 1 mm thick)
  • Stage II: Intermediate thickness melanoma (1-4 mm thick)
  • Stage III: Melanoma that has spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage IV: Melanoma that has spread to other organs or distant lymph nodes.

Knowing the stage of melanoma is important because it helps healthcare providers determine the best course of treatment and predict the likely outcome (prognosis) for the patient.

Tests to check your lymph nodes

When checking for melanoma, your doctor may check your lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread. Here are some tests that may be used to check your lymph nodes:

  1. Physical exam: Your doctor will examine the lymph nodes near the site of the melanoma to check for any swelling or enlargement.
  2. Sentinel lymph node biopsy: This is a surgical procedure that involves removing the sentinel lymph node, which is the first lymph node that cancer cells are likely to spread to from the primary tumor. The node is then examined under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells.
  3. Imaging tests: Imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRI scans, or PET scans, may be used to look for signs of cancer in the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

If your doctor finds that your lymph nodes are affected by melanoma, further treatment may be needed to remove the cancer and prevent it from spreading further. It's important to discuss your test results and treatments with your doctor to develop a plan that's right for you.

If melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes

If melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes, it means that the cancer has started to spread beyond the original site and into the lymphatic system. This is a sign that the cancer is becoming more advanced and may require more aggressive treatment.

If melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend a few different treatments, including:

  1. Surgery: If the cancer has spread to only a few close lymph nodes, surgery may be recommended to remove the affected nodes. This may help to slow or stop the spread of the cancer and may also provide information about the extent of the cancer.
  2. Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. It may be used to treat melanoma that has spread to nearby lymph nodes, either alone or in combination with surgery.
  3. Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the body's immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. It may be used to treat melanoma that has spread to close lymph nodes, either alone or in combination with other treatments.

Treatment for melanoma that has spread beyond lymph nodes

If melanoma has spread beyond the lymph nodes and into other parts of the body, it is considered to be advanced or metastatic melanoma. In this case, treatment options may include:

  1. Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy may include drugs like checkpoint inhibitors, which block certain proteins on cancer cells that help them evade the immune system.
  2. Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific genes or proteins that are involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. For example, drugs that target the BRAF or MEK genes may be used to treat melanoma that has specific genetic mutations.
  3. Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be used to treat melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body.
  4. Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy may be used to treat melanoma that has spread to specific areas of the body, such as the brain or bones.
  5. Surgery: Surgery may be used to remove metastatic tumors in specific areas of the body, such as the lungs or liver.

In some cases, a combination of these treatments may be used. It's important to work with a healthcare team that specializes in treating advanced melanoma to develop a personalized treatment plan that's tailored to your specific needs. Treatment for advanced stages can be challenging, but advances in treatment options have led to improved outcomes and longer survival times for many patients.

Dealing with Body image after a melanoma diagnosis

Dealing with changes in body image after a diagnosis of melanoma can be difficult, but there are several things you and your health care provider can do to help cope with these changes.

How a cancer patient can dealing with changes in body image

Talking to a mental health professional can provide support and guidance as you work through your feelings about your changing body image. They can also help you develop coping strategies to deal with anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues that may arise.

Joining a support group can be helpful in connecting with others who have been through similar experiences. Support groups can provide a safe and understanding environment to talk about your feelings and share coping strategies.

Staying active and engaged in hobbies and activities you enjoy can help boost your mood and self-esteem. Try to focus on things you can do, rather than things you can't.

Practicing self-care is important for both physical and emotional well-being. This can include things like eating well, getting enough rest, and taking time for relaxation and self-care activities.

If your melanoma has resulted in visible physical changes, such as scarring or disfigurement, there may be cosmetic or reconstructive options available that can help improve your appearance and boost your confidence.

Remember that it's normal to feel a range of emotions after a diagnosis of melanoma, including anxiety, fear, and sadness. Give yourself time to adjust and seek help when you need it. With the right support, it's possible to maintain a positive body image and move forward in a healthy and fulfilling way.

How medical professionals help with body image after a melanoma diagnosis

Medical professionals can play an important role in helping patients cope with changes in body image after a melanoma diagnosis. Here are some ways they can help:

  1. Provide information: Medical professionals can help patients understand the physical changes that may occur as a result of melanoma and its treatment. They can provide information about scarring, hair loss, or other changes in appearance that may occur.
  2. Offer support: Medical professionals can provide emotional support to patients and help them cope with the emotional impact of changes in body image. They can offer reassurance and support, and connect patients with mental health professionals or support groups if needed.
  3. Discuss treatment options: Medical professionals can discuss treatment options that may help improve appearance, such as reconstructive surgery or cosmetic procedures.
  4. Coordinate care: Medical professionals can work with other members of the healthcare team to ensure that patients receive the comprehensive care they need. This may include referrals to specialists or other healthcare professionals.
  5. Monitor for complications: Medical professionals can monitor for complications that may arise as a result of changes in body image, such as infections or wound healing problems.

Overall, medical professionals can play an important role in helping patients cope with changes in body image after a melanoma diagnosis. By providing information, emotional support, and access to appropriate care, they can help patients maintain a positive body image and move forward in a healthy and fulfilling way.

If you suspect you may have melanoma or have concerns about your skin, it is important to seek medical attention and undergo a professional skin examination as soon as possible. With early detection and effective treatment, the prognosis for melanoma is often favorable. Stay informed and take steps to protect your skin.

Melanoma awareness products

Further reading

20 Important Questions To Ask When You Have A Melanoma Diagnosis

How To Prepare For Chemotherapy Treatment | 6 Easy Steps

34 Ways To Support Your Loved One Living With Cancer

Everything You Need To Know About Radiotherapy And Chemo Mouth Sores

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