Melanoma is a cancer that develops in the pigment cells of the skin called melanocytes. Pigment cells produce melanin, the dark pigment present in the skin that gives its natural color. Melanocytes secrete excessive melanin when the skin is exposed to sunlight causing the skin to become darker in color.
Melanoma can develop in any part of the body but the most common sites prone to melanoma formation are the eyes and areas that are more exposed to the sun including the face, fingernail beds, back, and upper and lower extremities.
The exact cause of melanoma is not known. However, too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds is a major cause of melanoma. Melanoma growths develop when there is unrepaired DNA damage to the melanocytes causing the cells to rapidly multiply and form cancerous tumors.
Certain risk factors such as fair skin, frequent sunburns), having many moles or atypical moles, and a family history increases the risk of developing melanomas.
In the initial stages of a melanoma it may not exhibit any signs and symptoms. Gradually as the growth progresses, there may be changes visible in an existing mole such as the size, shape and the skin color/texture surrounding the mole. Melanomas may develop in or near a mole or on normal skin.
Following are the features of a typical melanoma (ABCDE):
- A – Asymmetry: Melanomas are typically irregular in shape, whereas ordinary moles are symmetrical.
- B – Border: Uneven, notched or blurred borders.
- C – Color: Different shades of color (black or brown).
- D – Diameter: Generally, melanomas measure about 6 mm in diameter.
- E – Evolution: Melanomas change in their size, shape, and color over a period of time.
Your doctor can often detect melanomas by asking you several questions about the symptoms you are experiencing and performing a thorough examination of the skin throughout the body. Further examination of a suspicious mole or growth is done by biopsy where a small sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells.
The treatment depends on the size, shape, and stage of melanoma, patient age and health status. The options include:
- Surgical removal of the melanoma
- Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy the cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves that destroy the rapidly multiplying cells.
The best ways of preventing melanoma include:
- Avoid tanning beds.
- Avoid the sun from 11 AM to 3 PM.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes that cover as much skin as possible.
- Application of broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen to avoid skin burns.
- Protect new born babies from excessive exposure to sunlight.