Melanoma is a relatively common but fairly serious type of cancer that develops in the skin, usually as a result of overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or from a tanning bed. It can be as small and localized as a single spot on your skin, or it can grow and spread to your lymph nodes and major organs. For this reason, it’s important to catch melanoma early and practice preventative measures when you’re spending significant time outdoors in the sun. Read on to learn more about this cancer.
Melanoma occurs when the cells on your top layer of skin begin to mutate and grow rapidly as a result of UV radiation exposure. It can appear within a regular mole on the skin, or it can show up in a completely unrelated place on your body. In men, melanoma most commonly develops on the torso and arms, while in women, it most commonly develops on the legs. However, it’s also fairly common for it to appear on the face for both men and women. There are four main types of melanoma to watch out for.
- Superficial spreading melanoma: This is the most common type of melanoma. It appears as spots on the skin before beginning to spread to other parts of the body.
- Nodular melanoma: The second most common type of melanoma, this cancer will likely develop on the torso, arms, and neck. It usually spreads more aggressively than superficial spreading melanoma. It may also have a blue-black or reddish color.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma: A less common type of melanoma, this cancer often develops on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun for many years, such as the face. It grows slowly and usually shows up at first as a freckle or a stain-like mark on the skin.
Acral lentiginous melanoma: The rarest form of melanoma, this cancer usually develops on the palms of hands, the soles of feet, and under fingernails.
How Skin Cells Become Melanoma
Melanocytes are cells found in your top layer of skin, and there are two different kinds: eumelanin and pheomelanin. They produce the pigment known as melanin, which gives skin its color. When your skin is exposed to UV radiation and begins to burn, both of these types of melanocytes produce melanin pigment in response. However, only eumelanin actually protects the skin by darkening it. Pheomelanin does not have the ability to protect the skin in this way. People with darker skin have higher levels of eumelanin cells in their skin, which is why they are less likely to be affected by the sun’s radiation than people with more pale skin people. However, melanoma can occur in people of all skin types and colors.
When the DNA of skin cells is damaged by the sun, it may begin to have a mutation reaction that causes these skin cells to rapidly reproduce, which leads to them becoming cancerous. If allowed to continue growing, melanoma cells can easily begin to affect the rest of your body’s systems, which decreases the chances of fully healing. Melanoma can result in death in extreme cases, which is why it’s so important to be aware of what’s happening on your skin.
How to Identify Melanoma
There are a couple different ways to figure out if you have melanoma. Because every case is unique, though, these methods are not definite. This is why experts often say “when in doubt, check it out” about strange spots on your skin.
The ABCDE Method
- A stands for Asymmetrical. Most melanoma spots are not a uniform shape, and will look different from other moles and spots on your skin.
- B stands for Border. Many melanoma spots will have uneven borders with ragged or notched edges.
- C stands for Color. Most benign, or harmless, skin spots are brown or black. But if a spot begins to grow or change shape and also gains blue or red coloring, it’s likely a melanoma spot.
- D stands for Diameter and Dark. Melanoma lesions will usually grow to be larger than any other skin spot you have (usually ¼ of an inch in diameter or larger), and they may also become darker than any other spot or mole, as well.
- E stands for Evolving. Melanomas often develop at the site of an already existing skin spot or mole, so it’s important to pay attention and take note if any spots on your body are changing.
The “Ugly Duckling” Method
Another way to tell if you might have a melanoma lesion is to identify if any spots on your skin look different than the rest (i.e. like a standout, or an “ugly duckling”). Usually, moles and freckles will have fairly consistent sizes, shapes, and colors, and if you have a spot that doesn’t look like the rest, it’s a good idea to get it checked by a doctor.
Preventing and Treating Melanoma
The best way to prevent melanoma is to carefully manage and monitor the amount of time you spend in the sun or in tanning beds on a regular basis. Know yourself, your skin type, and whether or not you burn easily. Take precautions while in the sun by wearing quality sunscreen, taking plenty of breaks in the shade, and knowing when it’s time to come indoors. The sun’s UV rays can pierce cloud cover, so remember that no matter what, spending significant amounts of time outdoors can be harmful for your skin.
However, as we’ve stated in this article, your body does need the light of the sun in order to get certain types of nutrients, like Vitamin D, that help it function properly. It’s important to go outdoors regularly. Just remember to keep track of your time spent in direct sunlight, wear protective clothing and sunscreen, and pay attention to the signals your body is giving you.
Treating melanoma can be simple or complicated, depending on what stage it has reached. If caught early, it can be fairly easily treated with surgery or radiation therapy. However, if it’s caught at a dangerous stage, more intensive radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or immunotherapy may be necessary. Melanoma can also develop at any age, though it’s more common in adults because they’ve had more time to be overexposed to UV radiation. Also, if you have pale skin and/or a family history of melanoma, you may also be at a higher risk than others.
We’re Here to Help
If you think you have melanoma, or would like to discuss your cancer risk or the amount of time you should spend in the sun, we’d be happy to help you. Your wellness is our priority, and we’d love to assist you in maintaining your health. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!