Skin Cancer (Melanoma)

Skin cancer (melanoma) represents a life threatening form of cancer that affects cells producing melanin, a pigment responsible for skin color. The appearance of this type of cancer is extremely alarming because it can metastasize forming other tumors in several parts of the body sometimes even leading to death. Taking into consideration that skin covers the entire human body, melanoma can start and spread anywhere. Specialists believe that ultraviolet radiation causes irremediable harm to skin cells, process that triggers their rapidly multiplication and ultimately, formation of malignant tumors, which are visible on the surface of the skin and people sometimes mistake them for moles. Although the cancerous growths generally have a dark color, sometimes they can acquire a purple, red, pink or white tint. Apparently, women with ages under 40 face higher chances of developing melanoma. The majority of times, patients themselves notice the tumors but noticing them is not enough. Seeking medical attention and care is imperative because early intervention, which usually consists in a minor surgery, will impede the dangerous spreading of melanoma that in most cases, if left untreated, leads to unfortunate events.

Obviously, a patient cannot establish a diagnosis but he should be able to recognize distinctive marks or signs that appeared out of nowhere and even though it might not seem something serious, it is better to be precautious in these types of situations and contact a professional. In order to make a distinction between benign or non-cancerous cells and malign or cancerous cells, people need to know basic information. As they age, people get different spots on their skin including freckles, moles and irregular bumps but they are harmless. Furthermore, there is no need for someone who has many moles on the skin to remove them because melanoma does not occur in already existing moles but rather appears on its own following excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation or tanning beds. Nevertheless, people should pay close attention to ABCDEs of melanoma, which refers to asymmetry, border irregularity, color, diameter and evolution. More exactly, asymmetry means that the two sides of the mole do not match; border irregularity means that a malignant spot has notched and uneven edges; in terms of color, a cancerous growth presents a combination of shades; when it comes to diameter and evolution, melanomas are larger than normal moles and they change their appearance in time.


Types of Melanoma (Skin Cancer)

Specialists divide melanomas into several categories, namely superficial spreading melanoma, nodular melanoma, lentigo maligna and acral lentiginous melanoma.

The first type of melanoma is more common in comparison to the others, being responsible for approximately 70% of cases. Young people with freckles and pale skin usually are more susceptible to superficial spreading melanoma, which grows outwards most of the times and then penetrates deeper into the skin taking control over different parts of the body. People can first notice a flat discolored spot with irregular edges and asymmetrical form. In want regards the color, the patches vary from black, brown and red to white. Common areas for superficial spreading melanoma involve the legs, the trunk and the upper back.

Nodular melanoma develops fast and penetrates the skin deeply if not removed, which makes it an aggressive type of melanoma. The cancerous growth resembles a black-colored bump, although sometimes can acquire other colors like white, grey, blue, red and brown. Elder people usually develop nodular melanoma on the legs and arms, the trunk and even on the scalp.

Lentigo maligna appears and remains on the surface of the skin for years before growing downwards and penetrating deeper layers. It resembles a freckle due to its flatness, except for the fact that this type of melanoma is darker and larger, drawing more the attention. Elders develop lentigo maligna on areas of the body greatly exposed to sunlight, such as face, upper trunk and arms.

Acral lentiginous melanoma is less common than the other forms and presents a superficial spreading until it penetrates the skin deeply. Palms of the hands and soles of the feet are main areas affected by acral lentiginous melanoma, which appears like a brown or black discoloration. Dark-skinned people face a higher risk of developing this type of cancer that unfortunately, often develops more than allowed because of late detection.


Causes of Melanoma

Even though specialists cannot provide a clear explanation regarding the main cause of melanoma, they managed to link several risk factors that contribute to the development of this type of skin cancer. For instance, intense exposure to UV light leading to sunburn represents a major aspect that could favor the appearance of melanoma. For this reason, people living in sunny locations like Australia and Hawaii become safe targets. However, people should not overlook tannings beds and sunlamps, which produce artificial light that could negatively contribute and increase the risk of developing this dangerous form of cancer. Those having atypical moles and many moles of different types in general will probably notice a cancerous growth at some point in their life, regardless of their location because when exceeding 100 moles, the risk also becomes greater. In terms of skin type, people with fairer skin and light colored hair should really be cautious and examine their skin occasionally for distinctive marks that could represent a sign of melanoma. Other risk factors for melanoma involve personal and family history, a weakened immune system, genetics and a close relative who already received a diagnosis of melanoma or the person herself receiving a diagnosis of melanoma in the past.


Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma

Melanoma does not force people to rush and seek medical attention because it does not manifest with unbearable pain or discomfort so they can live with this dangerous form of cancer years without even realizing it. However, the consequences are lethal and because of this, people need useful information that will help them detect early potential cancerous growths that could prove to be life threatening. It may be difficult to distinguish normal moles from the harmful ones, especially taking into account that many individuals have moles on the back or other areas on the body that they have not even seen throughout their life because obviously, people do not have eyes in the back of their heads. Nevertheless, for those moles that people can see, they must apply the ABCDEs of melanoma in order to determine if they suffer from this alarming type of skin cancer and take immediate action by going to the doctor. If a person notices a new mark on the skin and observes it occasionally, she will be able to notice any changes in terms of shape, size and color. Another sign that she must consider is the aspect of the spot because if it differentiates from the rest of spots already existent on the body, then a question mark inevitably arises. These do not represent the only warning signs of melanoma that people must keep in mind. Redness and swelling, tenderness and itchiness, spreading and scariness as well as oozing and bleeding are obvious clues that need maximum attention. Skin examination performed by a specialist will clear any doubt regarding the presence or absence of melanoma.


Prevention of Melanoma

Fortunately, people have the possibility to reduce the risk of not only melanoma but also other forms of skin cancer by following certain rules and observing several restrictions. First, people need to protect themselves from ultraviolet rays and remain in the shade, especially at noon when the sun is very strong. For those who plan to enjoy a vacation at the beach, wearing shirt, hat and sunglasses as well as applying sunscreen is very important. Secondly, people have to avoid exposure to artificial light, more specifically sunlamps and tanning beds. Even though beauty salons encourage their use by stating their harmless nature, dermatologists and other specialists in the field disapprove completely the statement. Children are not mature enough in order to understand the risks that come with prolonged exposure to sunlight and for this reason, adults need to take the necessary measures and provide them special attention and optimal protection. Finally yet importantly, each individual must become familiar with his type of skin and examine it regularly in order to notice possible abnormalities. Moreover, each person should visit her physician once a year for a professional skin examination.


Diagnosis of Melanoma

When a doctor deals with a patent who suspects the presence of cancerous growths on his skin, as a professional, he must follow several steps in order to confirm or infirm the patient’s belief. Like every other condition, the process of establishing an accurate diagnosis for melanoma demands acquiring information concerning the medical history of the patient followed by a thorough physical exam. Usually, the doctor asks questions about the distinctive mark and its characteristics, which refer to size or aspect alterations, itchiness or bleeding. After listening carefully the answers given by the patient, he proceeds to perform a physical skin examination with the goal to assess the nature of the mark. Besides the standard procedure, experienced dermatologists also use magnifying lens and light in order to analyze the area more carefully. Sometimes, they take digital photos of the specific marks or spots.

If the doctor confirms the patient’s belief, he will continue by removing the area in question with the goal to send it to the laboratory for analysis. The medical name for this procedure is skin biopsy and doctors dispose of various methods and options when it comes to performing it, which refer to excisional and incisional biopsy, punch and shave biopsy. Because of this, when it comes to choosing the most adequate procedure they take into consideration several factors including the size of the spot. Regardless of the method, all skin biopsies require injecting a local anesthetic to numb the affected area. While excisional biopsy demands removing the entire growth and incisional biopsy demands removing just a portion, both of these procedures consist in cutting the skin with a surgical knife in order to obtain the needed sample and stitching. Punch biopsy consists in penetrating the skin deeper to obtain a sample for examination by using a special tool that resembles a cookie cutter. The doctor finishes the process by stitching the edges of the skin. For shave biopsy, the doctor uses a surgical blade to shave off the skin layers at the surface. He applies an ointment or cauterizes the wound in order to stop the bleeding in the respective area. This procedure is very useful when suspecting the presence of melanoma.


Treatment for Melanoma

Patients with melanoma benefit from several medical treatments so doctors have to determine the stage of skin cancer in order to select the most adequate and efficient option. The primary treatment in these types of cases is surgery. The surgeon performs a wide incision with the purpose to remove the malignant growth as well as normal tissue surrounding it. This procedure will inevitably leave a wound so the surgeon may resort to skin grafting, which consists in replacing the skin removed with skin taken from other area of the patient’s body. During surgery, it is crucial to determine the spreading of the cancer to the lymph nodes. Sometimes, even if the surgery proves to be a success, the patient must undergo chemotherapy that will kill harmful cells left in his body and lower the risk of recurrence. Chemotherapy, more specifically, represents a treatment method that consists in taking drugs that have the power to impede cancerous cells from growing or dividing. Radiation therapy, on the other hand, uses high-energy X-rays to kill malignant cells. Doctors recognize two types of radiation therapy, namely external and internal. External radiation therapy consists in sending radiation towards the affected area by using a machine and internal radiotherapy requires inserting a radioactive substance directly into the cancer. Another suitable medical treatment for melanoma is immunotherapy. This method helps the patient’s body fight cancer. Doctors use certain substances made naturally by the patient’s body or artificially in the laboratory to increase defense against melanoma.

Last updated on March 2nd, 2018

Chris Riley

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