Malignant melanoma is a form of skin cancer and is often referred to as simply melanoma. Finding and treating melanoma before it spreads is important as it is fast-moving. With an early diagnosis and treatment, melanoma has a high-cure rate. Anyone can get this type of skin cancer, as it occurs in all skin colors and all ages.
Protecting yourself from the sun and not using tanning beds reduces skin cancer risks of all forms, including melanoma.
Causes and Risk Factors of Melanoma
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays plays a big role, especially in those with fair skin. Getting many sunburns, especially blistering sunburns as a child or teen, raises the risk of getting melanoma. Not all melanomas are caused entirely by UV rays. Other risk factors increase a person’s likelihood of getting melanoma.
Risk factors include:
- Light skin, hair, and eyes: fair, sun-sensitive skin that tans poorly or burns easily, red or blond hair, and blue or green eyes
- Moles: 50 or more small moles, unusual looking moles that are often larger than normal and have uneven edges
- Past sunburns or indoor tanning
- Have had melanoma or other skin cancer
- Have blood relatives (parent, child, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle) who have had melanoma
- Weakened immune system (due to disease, organ transplant, or medicine)
- Age 50 or older
Being younger than 50 does not mean that you cannot get melanoma. It is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25 through 29, and second most common cancer in adolescents and young adults.
When you examine your own skin, it is helpful to look for the ABCDEs of melanoma.
- A – Asymmetry – If your mole isn’t symmetrical, it may be a sign of cancer.
- B – Borders – Moles that aren’t cancerous have smooth borders; moles that are cancerous have jagged borders.
- C – Color – Benign moles are usually light to dark brown in color, and are one color throughout. Moles that may be cancerous are multiple colors, including red.
- D – Diameter – Moles that are under one millimeter in width normally don’t pose a problem; larger moles may be cancerous.
- E – Evolving – Non-cancerous moles tend to look the same over time. On the other hand, dangerous moles are evolving and growing, changing size and color with time.
The Stages of Malignant Melanoma
There are five stages of melanoma, including stage zero, or melanoma in situ. In stage zero, there are irregular melanocytes in the skin, but the abnormalities are not yet cancerous.
The other stages of melanoma are as follows:
- Stage I – In the first stage of melanoma, cancer has formed. In stage IA, the tumor is less than one millimeter thick and has no ulceration; in stage IB, the tumor is less than two millimeters thick and may have an ulceration. An ulceration is the medical term used to describe a break in the skin.
- Stage II – In stage II, the tumor has grown in size. Now, it is either less than two millimeters thick with an ulceration, or more than two but less than four millimeters thick with no ulceration.
- Stage III – Stage III melanoma is serious. At this point, the cancer has spread to one or more of the lymph nodes, the lymph nodes have joined together, and/or a collection of other small tumors have formed under the skin.
- Stage IV – When a person has stage IV melanoma, it means that the cancer has spread beyond the lymphatic system and is now prevalent in other parts of the body, which may include vital organs, the brain, and soft tissues. At stage IV, the prognosis is grim.
Treatment and Prognosis for Malignant Melanoma
Treatment often starts with complete surgical removal of melanoma in addition to the surrounding, normal-looking skin. Removing the normal-looking skin is called taking margins. This helps to make sure that all cancer cells are removed. When treated and detected on the earlier side, this may be the only treatment necessary. At this stage, the cure rate with surgical removal is nearly 100% and can be removed during an office visit.
If the cancer has spread beyond the skin, there will be more treatment and may include surgery to remove any tumors. Treatment may also involve radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Some patients receive immunotherapy to boost the immune system. If the melanoma is advanced, the patient often receives a combination of these treatments.
Patients that have had melanoma in the past do have a higher lifelong risk of getting it again.
Melanoma can also spread. This is why it is so essential to keep all appointments with your dermatologist and to perform self-examination. If you notice a changing mole or any other warning sign, make sure you get in to see your dermatologist right away.
Don’t Hesitate Any Longer – Seek Medical Care if you Have an Abnormal Skin Lesion Today
If you have an abnormal lesion on your skin, it is important that you seek medical care as soon as possible – doing so can save your life. Use the buttons below to find a clinician or location near you.