Today is Melanoma Monday, and we wanted to break down important facts and figures about the type of skin cancer. While about 20% of melanomas arise in existing moles across the skin, some people are more prone to the skin cancer than others. We spoke to Dr. Nancy Samolitis, MD, FAAD, and Owner/Co-Founder of Facile Dermatology + Boutique about all things melanoma. Ahead, learn how to protect yourself and more.
What is melanoma exactly?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is derived from cells known as melanocytes. Melanocytes are responsible for making melanin pigment in the skin and are also the type of cells that are in benign moles. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer because these malignant cells can break through the skin into the blood and lymphatic tissue and spread to other organs leading to severe illness and possibly death. Melanoma is the most common type of cancer in young adults. About 20% of melanomas arise in existing moles and usually appear as changes in the mole size, shape, or color, but the majority of melanomas arise as new growths that look like moles but have asymmetry in shape or color (A), irregular borders (B), variety of colors (C), diameter larger than 6mm (D), and are changing, growing or evolving (E). Rarely, melanomas can be pink in color (amelanotic) or can occur in difficult-to-detect areas like the eye.
Are certain people more prone to melanoma than others?
Yes, some people have a genetic predisposition to melanoma, so you are at higher risk if you have a close family member with a history of melanoma. Other risk factors include having a large number of moles, having atypical moles (moles with irregular shapes, various colors, etc), having fair skin, light hair/eyes, a history of sunburns, and a history of tanning bed use. People with a history of other skin cancers, certain cancers such as breast cancer, and a suppressed immune system are also at higher risk for developing melanomas. Men have a higher risk than women for melanoma, especially with increasing age and sun exposure.
What are some preventative measures that we can all take?
The most important preventative measure to take is UV light protection/avoidance. This is best done by using sunscreen with a full-spectrum block such as zinc daily and reapplying regularly to all exposed areas when outdoors. Even better than sunscreen is sun protective clothing, shade, and sun avoidance. Although sunscreen protects your skin from burning, you are still getting some UV light-induced cellular damage when your skin is directly exposed to the sun – this is why tanning even without burning is still putting you at risk. The other preventative measure you can take is to have your skin examined by a board-certified dermatologist. When you have an exam, the physician can assess your level of risk, remove any suspicious skin lesions for a biopsy, and suggest how often you need skin exams. When melanomas are detected in the early stage, they are easily removed with a simple surgery.
Are there any signs to look out for that may indicate one has melanoma?
As described above, moles that are changing or new growths on the skin with the ABCDEs – asymmetry, irregular border, changing color, increased diameter, and evolving features should be examined by a board-certified dermatologist. A skin biopsy is a simple in-office procedure that can evaluate whether the lesion is skin cancer or not. Getting to know your own moles with regular self-skin examinations will help you to be able to recognize new or changing skin lesions.
What are the treatment options for melanoma?
When melanomas are diagnosed, the treatment depends on how cancer looks under the microscope. If it is superficial, in just the top layers of the skin, it can be removed with a simple surgical excision to clear the margins. When it appears deeper or there are cellular features of more aggressive growth, additional surgery may be needed to remove lymph nodes and evaluation for possible metastatic disease with full-body imaging is necessary. For metastatic disease, chemotherapy has traditionally been fairly ineffective for controlling melanoma, but there are newer targeted immunotherapy drugs emerging that may be more effective for shrinking tumors. The best treatment for melanoma is still early detection and preventative measures.
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