Melanoma: Definition, Symptoms, Types, Causes, and Treatment

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What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a dangerous type of skin cancer. It may appear as a spot or as a change in the appearance of an existing freckle or mole.

Melanoma comes from melanocytes, which are skin cells that produce melanin (the dark pigment that gives skin its color).

Melanoma: Appearance

A melanoma looks similar to a mole, and is usually brown or black. In rarer cases, it may be skin-colored, blue, purple, pink, red, or white. It can take the form of itchy, crusty, scabbed, or bleeding sores.

If you notice a spot or growth, you should immediately consult your doctor, who will be able to distinguish benign from cancerous ones.

Melanomas may develop in the skin and other parts of the body, for example in the eyes. Furthermore, mucosal melanoma may also develop in other parts of the body with melanocytes, that is, in any mucous membrane, like nasal passages, the throat, anus, vagina, or mouth. This is a very rare type of melanoma.

What Causes Melanoma?

Melanoma generally develops from overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. This exposure, which may be from the sun, tanning beds, or sun lamps, damages the DNA of genes that control skin-cell growth. These mutations, or damaged genes, instruct cells to multiply rapidly and form tumors.

Caucasians are more prone to develop melanoma, but non-white individuals may get melanoma in the palms, soles and nails.

As we said before, overexposure to sunlight and sunburns in our youth increases the risk of having melanoma.

Some risk factors include:

  • A family or personal history of melanoma,
  • Fair skin, freckles, red or blond hair, and blue eyes,
  • Using tanning beds,
  • A weakened immune system,
  • Having many moles,
  • A history of prolonged or excessive exposure to sunlight (and having blistering sunburns).

Symptoms of Melanoma

As we mentioned above, it is essential to catch melanoma early. A doctor will be able to tell if it is a harmless spot or growth or a potentially harmful one. To be able to detect melanoma, the American Academy of Dermatology uses the “ABCDE” memory device, which helps to find warning signs that a spot may be melanoma: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving.

A malignant mole has the following characteristics:

  • It is Asymmetrical,
  • It has an irregular Border,
  • It contains more than one Color or is an unusual color,
  • Its Diameter is greater than 6.00 mm, and
  • It changes size, shape, or another trait (Evolves).

Treatment of Melanoma

If caught early, melanoma usually has a good prognosis. If the lesions have not spread beyond the surface of the skin, a simple surgery will be necessary. Generally, if it is less than 0.04 inches (or 1mm), the melanoma will be removed. If it is bigger than 1mm, doctors may request a sentinel node biopsy (it uses a dye to see if the tumor has spread to the lymphatic system). Then, the spot and the dyed lymph node will be removed and checked for cancer. If the sentinel nodes are found to be cancer-free, then doctors may assume the cancer has not spread.

In some cases, when melanoma is detected early, it can be surgically removed, but if it has spread too much, other treatments include:

  1. Immunotherapy
  2. Chemotherapy
  3. Tageted therapy

Melanoma is almost always curable when caught early. If melanoma has not metastasized, the 5-year survival rate is over 98%.

However, if melanoma goes undiagnosed it can spread to other parts of the body It therefore becomes harder to treat and there is a higher risk of being deadly.

If you were diagnosed with melanoma, your doctor will also check your chest and head. A chest X-ray and a brain scan are done to see if the melanoma goes to the brain and lungs.

If melanoma spreads under the skin to nearby lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate decreases to 62%. If it spreads to distant parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 16%.

Occasionally, melanoma may require chemotherapy. In the past, metastatic melanoma was deadly. However, nowadays it has become a chronic disease. New treatments and medications have been developed and medical trials with possible new treatments are performed all around the world.

Prevention of Melanoma

There are some precautions worth-taking to reduce the risk of developing melanoma. These precautions should be lifelong and consistent.

  • Avoid tanning beds,
  • Wear sunscreen all year-round even in overcast days,
  • Choose a sunscreen with a high SPF rating (at least 30 SPF),
  • Wear a hat, visors and tightly woven clothing to block UV rays when possible,
  • Stay out of the midday sun (between 10 am and 4 pm),
  • Get skin cancer screenings regularly,
  • Use lip balm with sunscreen.

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies

CAM therapies may alleviate stress and pain. They do not cure cancer but provide an alternative some patients may consider. They can be combined with traditional therapies after consulting with your doctor. CAM therapies include:

  • Nutrition Therapy: that is, eating healthier, providing your body with vital nutrients, Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly maintains your strength and helps your body fight cancer better. Consume antioxidant foods that prevent cancer, like plant-based spices (like curcumin), apples, broccoli, tomatoes, grapes, etc.
  • Naturopathic Medicine: it incorporates natural therapies, from herbal supplements, to accumuncture or massages. Herbal medicine includes drinking green tea (it has powerful antioxidants). Acupuncture and accupressure are said to lessen pain from cancer, since they release energy blocked in the body. Another option is physical therapy or massage, which help with chronic pain, soreness and relaxation. Hydrotherapy uses warm or cool water to alleviate pain (warm water relaxes the muscles and cold water reduces inflammation).
  • Mind-Body Therapy: it incorporates exercise, like walking or other low-impact activities, like yoga, to improve overall health and reduce stress. It also helps maintain a healthy weight and improve cardiovascular health.

We hope these tips were useful. Implement them to have a healthy skin and visit your doctor if you have any doubt.

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