Melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer found throughout the body, bust mostly on areas that have had sun exposure such as your back, legs, arms and face. It is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the skin cells (melanocytes). Melanocytes are found on the lower part of the epidermis. Melanomas can also occur in areas that don’t receive much sun exposure, such as the bottom of your feet, palms of your hands, and fingernails. The “hidden” melanomas are more common in darker skin toned people.
Melanomas don’t always begin as a mole, although most do. It can also occur on normal skin. That’s why it is very important to do self-skin exams to detect for possible melanomas.
Melanocytes and Moles
Melanocytes are the skin cells which produce the skin pigment Melanin. Melanin is the pigment which lends skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce more pigment causing the skin to darken.
Sometimes melanocytes and surrounding tissue can form darker noncancerous growths called moles. Moles are very common, and most people have up to 40 moles ranging from pink to tan to dark brown. Moles can be raised or flat,and are generally round or oval and smaller than 1/4 inch in diameter. (Technically a mole is properly called a nevus; the plural is nevi.)
Melanoma occurs when Melanocytes turn malignant.
Diagnosis of Melanoma
If your doctor suspects that a spot on your skin might be melanoma, She will generally take a small tissue sample called a biopsy. This is generally done by numbing up the skin around the mole, and using a small scalpel to remove the suspicious tissue along with a small margin of healthy tissue. The sample is then sent to an expert pathologist who will review the cells under magnification and determine whether the tissue is healthy or malignant. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis. During the biopsy the doctor tries to remove all of the suspicious-looking growth so that the diagnostice procedure is also curative.
If the diagnosis is melanoma, the doctor needs to learn the extent of the disease before planning treatment. The medical team establishes how thick the tumor is, how deeply it has invaded the skin, and whether the malignant cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
This process is called Staging, and the melanoma is assigned a stage. The stage of the melanoma will help indicated the course of treatment.
Depending on the apparent stage of the malignancy, the doctor might order removal of nearby lymph nodes (as both a diagnostic and therapeutic measure). If the tumor is thick, may order chest x-rays, blood tests, and scans of the liver, bones, and brain.
Options for treatment depend on different factors such as stage of melanoma, location and size, and the individual’s general health. One common treatment is surgical excision. Most people with a early case of melanoma can get it cut out. The surgery is less extensive and results in little scarring.
Other treatments include radiation therapy and lymph node dissection. Radiation therapy will direct high-energy rays at the melanoma, which kills the malignant cells. Lymph node dissection removes most or all of the lymph nodes in the region.
Consult your dermatologist or physician for more information on symptoms and treatment of melanomas.
Read more about the stages of Melanoma and the corresponding treatment regiments here.
The National Cancer Institute has a toll free information line available for patients and their familes. The specialists at the NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER can answer questions about melanoma and can send NCI materials