Understanding Melanoma’s Risk Factors
Do you know the symptoms of melanoma? Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, making up only 2 percent of skin cancer cases annually but causing more than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths. However, when patients recognize melanoma signs, the disease can be treated and stopped in its earliest stage with an excellent rate of survival.
The chief risk factor in melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet light, either from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning lamps. Melanoma is most common on skin that has had extended exposure to sunlight, but it can also also form on other areas of the skin, as well as in the eyes, mucous membranes, and digestive tract, so clearly ultraviolet light is not the only cause.
Melanoma is the uncontrolled growth of skin cells called melanocytes that create the skin’s pigment. Melanoma is most common in white men over the age of 50, but it can occur in anybody, of any age, and of any race. Other risk factors include fair skin that freckles and burns easily; a history of blistering sunburns as a child or teenager; a family history of melanoma, which accounts for about 10 percent of cases; having several large or many small moles; exposure to radiation and some industrial chemicals; and having an immune system weakened by chemotherapy, an organ transplant, or an immune system suppressing disease such as lymphoma or HIV/AIDS.
Melanomas often begin as a mole or dark pigmented spot on the skin. The risk of any particular mole becoming cancerous is very low, but people should be aware of their moles and watch for changes.
Melanoma signs may include a mole or dark spot that is asymmetrical, has an irregular border or uneven color, is increasing in diameter, and is changing over time. It may also itch or bleed.
Monthly self-exams help catch melanoma signs early. In one study, people who examined themselves with a trained partner found more melanomas than people who did a self-exam alone. Spots that show melanoma symptoms should be checked by a doctor or dermatologist.
A melanoma diagnosis is confirmed by a skin exam, sampling the tissue, and examining the cells under a microscope. In early stages, it may be hard to distinguish benign tissue from a cancer. A second opinion may clarify a melanoma diagnosis.
Staging is the process of determining how advanced the cancer has become. Melanoma staging is based on the thickness of the tumor, whether it has ulcerated and penetrated other layers of the skin, and whether it has spread to nearby tissues, the lymph nodes, and other organs. A thin melanoma that has not grown below the epidermis is Stage 0. A Stage IV melanoma has metastasized, or spread, via the blood or lymph system to other organs such as the brain, bones, liver, or intestines. Melanoma staging guides melanoma treatment.
Surgery to remove cancerous tumors is the primary treatment in all stages. Stage 0 may need only removal of the tumor. Later stages may also require mapping and removal of cancerous lymph nodes, immunotherapy to bolster the body’s immune system, chemotherapy, and radiation. In late stages treatment may be mostly to improve the patient’s comfort.
Melanoma treatment is most effective when the tumor is still very small and thin. Five-year survival rates range from 100 percent at Stage 0 to 7 to 19 percent at Stage IV. For a better understanding of your risk of melanoma, consult your doctor or dermatologist.