Melanoma or Malignant Melanoma is, although relatively rare accounting for 10% of all skin cancer cases, the most serious form of skin cancer. Melanoma, is a disease of the upper layer of our skin, the Epidermis, and is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of the skin cells known as Melanocytes, the cells which are responsible for producing a substance called Melanin which protects our skin from the effects of Sun exposure.
The uncontrolled growth of these cells form the tumor or skin lesion, more commonly referred to as cancer. Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body, a process known as Metastasis, via the Lymph Nodes, small glands which are found throughout the body, where it may grow and form secondary tumors, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Superficial Spreading Melanoma or Metastatic Melanoma. However although Malignant Melanoma is the most serious and aggressive form of skin cancer, accounting for about 75% of all terminal skin cancer cases, if found and treated in it’s early stages it is an entirely curable condition.
Although anyone can develop skin cancer there are some groups which are higher risk than others. The people most at risk are those who tend to find it difficult to tan, or sunburn easily. Those of us with fair skin, red or blonde hair and blue or green eyes are most at risk of developing the disease. Other important risk factors include people with freckles, a high number of moles (100+) or have a weakened immune system, for example people who are HIV positive. Previously damaged skin is also susceptible to developing Melanoma Skin Cancer, for example skin which has scarring from burns or ulcers.
Melanoma’s can appear on any part of your body but most commonly appear on the back, legs, arms and face. The first sign of Melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in the appearance of an existing mole. Normal moles are usually oval or round in shape with a well defined edge, are a uniform color and measure less than 1/4 Inch across. A Melanoma lesion will often be more than one color, be of an irregular shape, may rapidly grow to over 1/4 Inch and is sometimes accompanied by itching and bleeding. The symptoms of Melanoma can be summarized by using the following ABCD checklist:
A for Asymmetrical- Melanoma’s are an irregular shape with two very different shaped halves.
B for Border- Unlike normal Moles Melanoma’s do not have a well defined edge but appear ragged and irregular.
C for Color- Unlike a normal Mole a Melanoma Tumor will contain more than one color.
D for Diameter- Melanoma’s quite rapidly grow larger than 1/4 Inch in size whereas a normal mole will never grow to that size.
If you discover any of these symptoms you MUST visit your doctor ordermatologist for a professional diagnosis as soon as possible as time is of the essence for suspected Melanoma patients. Your doctor or dermatologist will examine you and perform a biopsy whereby they will remove the tumor which will be sent for further examination at a laboratory.
In a case of suspected Melanoma he or she will also perform a Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy to ensure that any cancer present has not spread to the Lymph Glands. Scans including X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans or Ultrasound scans may also be performed. If your results confirm that you do have Melanoma there are several options available to you which will be explained to you by your doctor. Treatment available to tackle the disease will vary from case to case and will depend on factors such as your age, the location of the cancer, and at what stage of development it has reached. There are a number of treatments available to tackle Melanoma and your doctor will advise you on which is best for you.
In cases of Melanoma a surgeon will remove the tumor and a small amount of the surrounding healthy skin which will be examined in a laboratory to ensure that all the affected tissue has been removed. If needed a further area of tissue will be taken until all traces of the cancer have been removed. If the sentinel lymph node biopsy has shown traces of the cancer these will be removed at the same time. Your doctor may decide that further non-surgical treatments would help to eradicate any remaining traces of the cancer or help to stop it returning.
The most common malignant melanoma treatments used are:
This is given as a course of tablets.
At present this consists of manufactured antibodies such as Interferon which help the body’s natural immune system to fight the cancer. More recent developments include Melanoma vaccines which are undergoing research trials at present.
X-rays are used to kill cancer cells.
If your Melanoma is at an early stage chemotherapy can be given to you in tablet form or injected. This will have the benefit of fewer of the common side effects found with more generalized chemotherapy such as sickness and hair loss.
As with all other forms of skin cancer Malignant Melanoma is, perhaps excepting a small number of genetically predisposed cases, an entirely preventable disease. Everyone, but especially those of us in the high risk groups, should take the appropriate measures to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of overexposure to ultraviolet light from the Sun. Always use a High Sun Factor Sun cream and limit your exposure to the Sun at the hottest part of the day if possible. If this is not possible, for example if you work outside, cover your body and wear a hat which gives shade to the face and neck areas. If you have or are in a position where you care for young children pay extra attention to them and never let them suffer sunburn. Not only is children’s skin more sensitive than that of adults, there is ample evidence now that people who suffered from sunburn in their childhood have a far higher incidence of developing skin cancers later in life.
Although a serious disease, Malignant Melanoma can be completely cured with the aid of modern medical procedures. It is essential that if you feel that you may have any of the symptoms outlined above that you see a doctor or other health professional as soon as possible, regardless of cost or convenience. If caught early the prognosis for malignant Melanoma patients is extremely good.
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