Cancer is never good news but some can be more dangerous than others. When it comes to skin cancer the most consistently lethal type is melanoma, which itself comes in various forms. Melanoma is a leading cause of death amongst skin cancer patients despite being less common than other forms of skin cancer. Given its frequency in the West (including North and South America, and Europe), it’s important to know the signs, symptoms, treatment options and risk factors relating to melanoma. Today we’ll go over each of these in brief starting with risk factors.
Risk Factors for Melanoma
Two of the most basic risk factors for melanoma are largely out of most patients’ control. The first is location, melanomas occur frequently in Europe, North and South America, and Southern Africa due to frequent and intense exposure to the sun in these locales. The second is sex related, melanomas occur more often in women than in men. living in one of these places or being a woman (or even living in one of these places and being a woman) doesn’t mean you’ll end up with melanoma. It does mean however that you should take a little extra care when you spot something weird going on with moles on the surface of your skin.
A third significant risk factor is a hereditary condition known as atypical mole syndrome or dysplastic nevus syndrome. Patients with the condition have a large number (usually more than fifty) of moles many of which are dysplastic (a histological term that for our purposes just means they’re different from normal moles). These moles are more likely to undergo malignant transformation and become melanomas and people with the syndrome are more likely to generate new malignant moles as well. If you fall into this category it’s important to have your moles regularly examined and to take careful note of any new ones that pop up.
The other most important risk factor is relatively easy to control is exposure to sunlight. The National Cancer Institute recommends staying out of the sun between 10AM and 4PM, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and using sunscreen whenever possible. Tanning booths are also obviously out of the question if you want to minimize your risk of melanoma.
The most common melanomas affect moles on the skin, so it’s important to keep an eye on these. Melanoma is usually distinguished by the ABCDE mnemonic. Moles that are asymmetrical have irregular borders, color and large diameter and evolve over time display early signs of melanoma. They should be evaluated as soon as noticed to ensure any problems can be caught early. Nodular melanoma has a different set of characteristics they are elevated, firm and growing (the so-called EFG mnemonic characteristics).
Only a dermatologist is qualified to formally diagnose melanoma but it’s important to keep a lookout for anything new, weird or painful going on with your moles. If they seem to be growing, becoming discolored or are painful and itchy, you should probably get them checked out if only to be safe.
More advances melanomas might display more aggressive symptoms. The itching and pain mentioned above are two of these bleeding, ulceration and the emission of pus are others. At this point there’s definitely something wrong even if not cancer so there should be no delay whatsoever in seeing a specialist who can evaluate the problem.
Treatment options for melanoma depend on the severity of the cancer and the stage at which it is caught. Melanoma caught early can be surgically removed and if early is early enough recurrence is rare. If however the melanoma does recur or metastasizes to other parts of the body, all the traditional treatment options become relevant. These include chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy, some of which (chemo in particular) can be brutal and all of which are exhausting. Of course, if there’s no other choice it’s far better to go through with the treatment than to let the cancer run its course But the nature of cancer treatment makes clear that it’s important to keep an eye peeled on what’s going on with your body so you won’t have to endure it.