What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a potentially life-threatening skin cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (brown pigment). Almost half of the incidences of melanoma occur in new (dysplastic) moles or moles already present (congenital) on the skin surface.
Is Melanoma Fatal?
Melanoma can be life-threatening and has a fatality rate higher than those for basal cell and squamous cell cancers – it accounts for more than 80 percent of all deaths from skin cancer. Of the estimated 50,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year, about 8,000 result in death.
Can Early Detection help?
Yes. Surgery usually removes all traces of cancer when melanoma is detected early in its development. Survival rate drops once cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (30-40% after five years) and again when it begins to impair the major organs (12% after five years).
The causes of melanoma are not yet known, although there are many suspected risk factors, including:
- Familial tendency to develop freckles or prominent or atypical (unusual-looking) moles.
- Presence of many freckles, moles, large moles or atypical moles
- Family member with melanoma
- Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, especially sunbathing
- Overexposure to sunlight before age 18
- Caucasian ancestry, with fair skin (although all races/skin tones are susceptible)
- Sun sensitivity / Poor tanning ability
- Immune system deficiency due to disease or organ transplantation
- Previous presence of melanoma
How can I tell if I have Melanoma?
Self-examination is the best way to find melanoma in its early, curable stages. Simply stand in front of a mirror and examine your body with arms lowered and then raised, making sure to pay particularly close attention to the forearms, upper underarms, palms, backs of the legs, tops and soles of the feet, and between the toes. Hand mirrors are useful for searching the back of the neck, scalp (parting the hair), back and buttocks.
I think I Have Melanoma, What do I do?
Go to a doctor! The presence of cancer can only be confirmed with a biopsy, and early detection greatly increases the likelihood of cure.
Treatment for melanoma depends on the tumor’s location, thickness and progression as well as the patient’s age, health, medical history and preferences. A biopsy is often performed to determine the extent of the cancer. Most often, the appropriate treatment is surgery, followed by adjuvant therapy (interferon, vaccines) for patients at great risk of metastasis (spreading of cancer throughout the body).
Other common options are chemotherapy, radiation therapy (x-rays, gamma rays, radioisotopes) and biologic therapy (interferon, cytokines, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines) to improve the body’s self-defense abilities.