What is a melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of cancer that begins in a melanocyte, a cell that belongs to the top layer of the skin (the epidermis). Melanocytes make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.
Melanomas can also develop in other parts of the body, such as the eyes, mouth, genitals, and anal area.
What are the signs and symptoms of melanomas?
Melanomas often begin as a mole or bumpy bump on the skin. The most important thing to know is whether a mole has undergone a change, be it in size, shape or color.
Keep the ABCDE rule in mind when checking your moles:
- A for asymmetry : If you were to cut the mole vertically in half, would the right and left halves be different?
- B for border : they are blurred and undefined edges? Does the mole appear to be spreading to the sides?
- C for color : Does the mole appear darker or lighter than usual, or does it have an area with a new color, perhaps black, blue, purple, red, or white?
- D for diameter : is the mole larger than the eraser that some pencils have on top?
- E for evolution : has there been any change in the size, shape, color, or elevation of the mole?
Melanomas usually develop on the trunk, head, and neck in boys, and on the lower legs in girls.
Causes of melanomas
One of the most important factors that contribute to the development of melanomas is the injuries caused by the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. Cells that have been injured, especially by short but strong doses of radiation in sunburns where blisters appear during childhood or by regular use of tanning beds during adolescence and youth, are more likely to become cancerous with the weather.
Sometimes melanomas start in areas of the skin where there are no dark spots or bumps.
Melanoma appears when melanocytes stop working normally. Due to a genetic change (or mutation), they can start to grow out of control, sticking together to form tumors, crowding out healthy cells, and damaging surrounding tissue.
Who can get melanoma?
Risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing melanoma include the following:
- fair complexion (fair skin that freckles and burns easily)
- blue or green eyes
- blonde or red hair
- having many moles (usually more than 25)
- being exposed to UV rays (from the sun or tanning beds)
- having a history of severe or frequent sunburn
- having a relative with melanoma or a family history of moles of unusual shapes
- age (older people are at higher risk)
- having previously had melanoma
Although much less likely, young, dark-skinned people with no family history of cancer can also develop melanomas.
How are melanomas diagnosed?
The doctor will do a biopsy, removing part or all of the lesion or mole (the affected area of skin) to examine its cells under a microscope. The biopsy will show if the cells are cancerous. The biopsy can also show the depth of penetration of the melanoma into the skin, which can predict its risk of spread.
How are melanomas treated?
Treatment of melanoma may include:
- an operation to remove the cancerous lesion
- chemotherapy – drugs that destroy tumors and are given by mouth (orally), by injection, or intravenously (into a vein)
- targeted therapy: specific drugs that detect and attack cancer cells without harming normal cells
- immunotherapy (or biological therapy): when doctors stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells
The treatment chosen will depend on:
- the size and depth of the lesion
- where in the body the cancer is found
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
Can melanomas be cured?
When a melanoma is found early, that is, when it is still on the surface of the skin, it can be cured.
An untreated melanoma can continue to grow into the skin into the blood vessels and lymphatic system. This allows the cancer to travel to distant organs, such as the lungs or the brain. That is why it is so important to detect it early.
Can melanomas be prevented?
You cannot control how white your skin is or whether a relative of yours has had cancerous moles. But there are several things you can do to reduce your risk of developing melanomas. The most important thing is to limit sun exposure.
Follow these precautions:
- Avoid exposing yourself to the strongest sun of the day, between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.
- Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with a protection factor (FP) of at least 30 when you go out in the sun.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats and dress in long, loose cotton clothing, especially if you tend to burn easily.
- Avoid tanning beds at all costs. Even just one session in a tanning bed increases your risk of developing melanomas.
Also, be sure to check your moles often (you may need to ask a friend to help you check parts of your body that you can’t see, like your back and scalp). Keep an up-to-date record of the location, size, shape and color of your moles; And if you spot anything suspicious, see a doctor immediately.
Not all skin cancers are melanomas, but all cases of melanoma are serious. So now that you know a lot more about melanomas, take responsibility to protect yourself and do what you can to reduce your risk.