Melanoma is a potentially life-threatening skin cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (brown pigment). Melanoma’s fatality rate is higher than that of basal cell and squamous cell cancers; it accounts for more than 80 percent of all skin-cancer deaths. Early detection and treatment greatly increase the likelihood of cure. Performing a self-examination in front of a mirror is the best way to detect melanoma in its early stages. If melanoma is suspected, a doctor should be contacted immediately.
Symptoms of Melanoma
Early signs of melanoma are related to changes in shape or color of existing moles, or the development of new ones. Early signs of melanoma are generally identified by the mnemonic ABCDE:
- Border irregularity
- Color variation
- Diameter greater than 6 mm
- Evolution over time
Early signs of melanoma may develop from existing moles or may resemble moles. The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. During later stages, a melanoma may itch or bleed. If a melanoma is diagnosed and treated in its early stages, it is usually curable; however, during later stages, it can rapidly spread to other parts of the body, become hard to treat, and possibly be fatal.
Causes of Melanoma
What causes melanoma is not known, although there are many suspected risk factors, including:
- Familial tendency to develop freckles or prominent/atypical moles
- Presence of many freckles, moles, large moles or atypical moles
- Family history of melanoma
- Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation
- Overexposure to sunlight prior to age 18
- Caucasian ancestry, with fair skin
- Sun sensitivity or poor tanning ability
- Immune-system deficiency
- Previous melanoma
Although Caucasian ancestry is a suspected risk factor, all races and skin tones are susceptible to melanoma.
Treatment for Melanoma
Treatment for melanoma depends on its location, thickness and progression, as well as the patient’s age, health, medical history and preferences. A biopsy is often performed to determine the extent of the cancer. Most often, the appropriate treatment is surgery, followed by adjuvant therapy, including interferon and vaccines, for patients at great risk for the cancer’s spreading throughout the body. Other common options are chemotherapy and radiation therapy, as well as biologic therapy, which includes interferon, cytokines, monoclonal antibodies and vaccines, to improve the body’s self-defense abilities.