Melanoma is a serious form of cancer that begins in skin cells known as melanocytes. They produce a pigment known as melanin which gives your skin its colour. Melanoma occurs when there is a mutation in melanocytes and they start dividing uncontrollably. Under normal conditions, healthy skin cells develop in a controlled manner pushing away old ones towards the outer surface of the skin which eventually die. But in case of a DNA damage, new cells start growing abnormally, leading to the formation of a mass of cancerous cells.
Though less common, melanoma is the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. Though it can originate in any part of the skin, certain areas are more vulnerable than others. Mostly, melanoma affects men more on the chest and the back while the common spot for women is their leg. It can also develop on the face and eyes. Rarely, this skin cancer can originate in the intestines. Melanoma is comparatively less common in dark-skinned people.
Though the exact cause behind this skin cancer is yet to be known, it is likely that melanoma is the result a combination of various factors: environmental toxins, genetic predisposition over exposure to UV rays and others.
TYPES OF MELANOMA
There are four types of melanoma. Here is a low-down on them.
Superficial spreading melanoma
Found mostly on the trunk and limbs, this type of cancer tends to grow slowly at first. Gradually they spread across the surface of the skin.
This cancer can develop on your trunk, head, or neck. It grows faster than the other types and is more aggressive too.
Lentigo maligna melanoma
Prevalent in the elderly population, this type of melanoma isn’t very common. It develops mostly in the sun-exposed areas of the body, such as your face. At the onset, it looks like a stain on the skin and develops gradually. It is less severe than other forms of melanoma.
Acral lentiginous melanoma
Rarest of all melanomas, it is found on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or under the nails. Dark-skinned people are likely to get this skin cancer.
STAGES OF MELANOMA
Determining the stage of skin cancer is crucial as it tells your doctor about its origination and spread. This helps in deciding the line of treatment.
Stage 0: At this stage, the cancerous cells are present in the outer layer of the skin.
Stage 1: When the cancerous tumour is about 2mm thick, it is known as stage 1 melanoma. At this stage, it doesn’t spread to your lymph nodes or elsewhere. The tumour may or may not be ulcerated.
Stage 2: The thickness of the tumour ranges between 1mm to 4mm at this stage. The cancer cells haven’t yet spread to lymph nodes and other areas.
Stage 3: At this stage, cancerous cells spread to lymph nodes and nearby lymphatic channels. However, they do not reach distant parts of the body at stage 3. The original tumour may not be visible at this stage. However, if it is, then the thickness will be above 4 mm.
Stage 4: Affected cells march to distant lymph nodes and organs like brain, lungs, or liver.
RISK FACTORS BEHIND MELANOMA
Though the exact cause behind melanoma is not known, certain factors can elevate your risk of this skin cancer. Here, we guide you on them.
Overexposure to the sun’s UV light: This is a major factor that can potentially increase your risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.
Fair skin: People with light skin have a low melanin count. This makes them more vulnerable to UV damage, a major risk factor behind melanoma.
History of sunburn: Severe sunburn can up your risk of this skin cancer.
Living at a higher elevation or close to the equator: The rays of the sun are more direct in areas close to the equator. This exposes people in those areas to high amount of UV radiation. Also, places at a higher elevation have the same effect.
Too many moles: High count of moles on the body (above 50) can be indicative of a higher risk melanoma. Also, if the size of moles is larger than usual, your chance of getting melanoma.
Genetic of melanoma: A person with a first degree relative (parent or siblings) suffering from melanoma is more vulnerable to this skin cancer.
Compromised immune system: If your body’s defence mechanism is poor, you may be vulnerable to melanoma. Your immune function can be compromised if you have conditions like HIV or are under medications like immunosuppressants.
SYMPTOMS OF MELANOMA
Catching the symptoms of melanoma early on can be instrumental in determining the outcome of treatment. Here are the common symptoms of this cancer:
- Changes on an existing mole: Irregular shape and border, uneven colour, asymmetry of colours, increasing size (larger than a quarter of an inch), itchiness, bleeding, etc.
- Unusual growth on the skin
- Tan, pink or white tumour
DIAGNOSIS OF MELANOMA
Physical exam: Your doctor will evaluate your physical symptoms and medical history to watch out for the signs of melanoma.
Biopsy: This is a confirmatory test for melanoma where skin samples are taken for laboratory examination. There are different types of biopsies which diagnose a variety of conditions starting from the thickness of melanoma to the stage it belongs to. determine whether a suspicious skin lesion is melanoma, your doctor may recommend removing a sample of skin for testing. The sample is sent to a lab for examination.
Imaging tests: These include X-rays, CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. They are recommended for detecting the areas where melanoma has spread apart from skin. They are recommended for thick melanomas.
Additional tests may also be recommended to check the rate of cell division, ulceration, so on and so forth.
TREATMENT OF MELANOMA
The line of treatment will be determined by your doctor depend on the size and stage of cancer, severity of symptoms and other factors. Here is a low-down on various treatment options:
Surgery: The aim of surgical intervention is to remove the cancerous tumour and the affected lymph nodes. n case of advanced stage melanomas, additional treatments may be required.
Immunotherapy: This is a drug therapy which helps your immune cells to fight the cancer cells by inhibiting certain proteins that help the malignant cells survive. This treatment is recommended when melanoma can’t be completely cured with the help of surgery.
Targeted therapy: Through this drug treatment modality, the specific problem areas of a person’s cancerous cells are targeted. Targeted therapy helps your cancer cells die. It is recommended when melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes and different organs of the body.
Radiation therapy: It is recommended when surgery isn’t able to remove the cells affected by melanoma or the skin cancer has spread to lymph nodes. It kills cancer cells with the help of energy beams.
Chemotherapy: This is also a drug therapy aimed towards killing cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered either through pills or intravenously.