Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.

Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole. Most melanomas have a black or black-blue area. Melanoma may also appear as a new mole. It may be black, abnormal, or "ugly looking."

Thinking of "ABCDE" can help you remember what to watch for:
  • Asymmetry - the shape of one half does not match the other
  • Border - the edges are ragged, blurred or irregular
  • Color - the color is uneven and may include shades of black, brown and tan
  • Diameter - there is a change in size, usually an increase
  • Evolving - the mole has changed over the past few weeks or months

Surgery is the first treatment of all stages of melanoma. Other treatments include chemotherapy and radiation, biologic, and targeted therapies. Biologic therapy boosts your body's own ability to fight cancer. Targeted therapy uses substances that attack cancer cells without harming normal cells.

 

Although protecting the skin and eyes from the sun has not been proven to lower the chance of getting skin cancer, skin experts suggest the following:

  • Use sunscreen that protects against UV radiation
  • Do not stay out in the sun for long periods of time, especially when the sun is at its strongest.
  • Wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, sun hats, and sunglasses, when outdoors.

 

Risk factors for melanoma include the following:

  • Having a fair complexion, which includes the following:
  • Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly.
  • Blue or green or other light-colored eyes.
  • Red or blond hair.
  • Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.
  • Being exposed to certain factors in the environment (in the air, your home or workplace, and your food and water). Some of the environmental risk factors for melanoma are radiation, solvents, vinyl chloride, and PCBs.
  • Having a history of many blistering sunburns, especially as a child or teenager.
  • Having several large or many small moles.
  • Having a family history of unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome).
  • Having a family or personal history of melanoma.
  • Being white.
  • Having a weakened immune system.
  • Having certain changes in the genes that are linked to melanoma.

Being white or having a fair complexion increases the risk of melanoma, but anyone can have melanoma, including people with dark skin.

 

Melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer. It is more likely to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body than other types of skin cancer. When melanoma starts in the skin, it is called cutaneous melanoma. Melanoma may also occur in mucous membranes (thin, moist layers of tissue that cover surfaces such as the lips). 

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by melanoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A mole that:
    • changes in size, shape, or color.
    • has irregular edges or borders.
    • is more than one color.
    • is asymmetrical (if the mole is divided in half, the 2 halves are different in size or shape).
    • itches.
    • oozes, bleeds, or is ulcerated (a hole forms in the skin when the top layer of cells breaks down and the tissue below shows through).
  • A change in pigmented (colored) skin.
  • Satellite moles (new moles that grow near an existing mole).

 

If a mole or pigmented area of the skin changes or looks abnormal, the following tests and procedures can help find and diagnose melanoma:

  • Skin exam: A doctor checks the skin for moles, birthmarks, or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Biopsy : A procedure to remove the abnormal tissue and a small amount of normal tissue around it. A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. It can be hard to tell the difference between a colored mole and an early melanoma lesion. Patients may want to have the sample of tissue checked by a second pathologist. If the abnormal mole or lesion is cancer, the sample of tissue may also be tested for certain gene changes.

It is important that abnormal areas of the skin not be shaved off or cauterized (destroyed with a hot instrument, an electric current, or a caustic substance) because cancer cells that remain may grow and spread.

 

Five types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery to remove the tumor is the primary treatment of all stages of melanoma. A wide local excision is used to remove the melanoma and some of the normal tissue around it. Skin grafting (taking skin from another part of the body to replace the skin that is removed) may be done to cover the wound caused by surgery.

Even if the doctor removes all the melanoma that can be seen at the time of surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Chemotherapy given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Surgery to remove cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes, lung, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, bone, or brain may be done to improve the patient’s quality of life by controlling symptoms.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.

The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat melanoma.

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

New targeted therapies are being studied in the treatment of melanoma.

 

The earlier melanoma of the skin is caught, the better chance a person has of surviving five years after being diagnosed. For melanoma of the skin, 84.0% are diagnosed at the local stage. The 5-year survival for localized melanoma of the skin is 98.3%.