Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer worldwide, with melanoma being one of its most aggressive types. Melanoma originates in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment responsible for our skin, hair, and eye colour. While melanoma accounts for a small percentage of skin cancer cases, it is responsible for a majority of skin cancer-related deaths. In this blog post, we will delve into what melanoma looks like, why waiting is not an option, how to spot its signs, the ABCDEs of melanoma, and the best ways to prevent this potentially deadly disease.
What Does Melanoma Look Like?
Melanoma often appears as an unusual mole or growth on the skin. Recognizing these characteristics can be crucial in early detection:
- Asymmetry: If one half of the mole doesn’t match the other half.
- Border: Irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined edges.
- Color: Varied shades of brown, black, pink, red, or white.
- Diameter: Typically larger than the eraser of a pencil (about 6 mm).
- Evolving: Changes in size, shape, colour, or elevation over time.
Why You Shouldn’t Wait
Early detection of melanoma is vital for successful treatment. If left unchecked, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body, making it more challenging to treat and potentially fatal. When detected and treated in its early stages, the survival rate is significantly higher.
How to Spot the Signs of Melanoma
Regular self-examinations and professional skin checks are key to spotting melanoma early. Here’s how to perform a self-exam:
- Use Good Lighting: Ensure you have adequate lighting and a full-length mirror.
- Examine Your Entire Body: Start from head to toe, including your scalp, nails, and the spaces between your toes.
- Use a Hand Mirror: For hard-to-see areas like your back, use a hand mirror or ask a family member or friend for assistance.
- Take Note of Moles: Pay attention to any moles or spots that exhibit the ABCDE characteristics mentioned above.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can present in various forms, and different subtypes have distinct characteristics.
Superficial Spreading Melanoma:
- Appearance: Superficial spreading melanoma is the most common subtype of melanoma. It typically begins as a flat, irregularly shaped lesion with uneven colouring. The colours may include shades of brown, black, pink, or red. The lesion often has an asymmetrical shape and irregular borders.
- Growth Pattern: This type of melanoma tends to spread across the surface of the skin before it penetrates deeper layers. It may slowly evolve over time, allowing for early detection if monitored.
- Risk Factors: Prolonged sun exposure, especially with sunburns, is a significant risk factor for superficial spreading melanoma.
Lentigo Maligna Melanoma:
- Appearance: Lentigo maligna melanoma typically arises on areas of the skin with chronic sun exposure, such as the face, neck, and forearms. It often appears as a large, irregularly shaped, tan or brown lesion with mottled colouring. The borders may be indistinct and blend into the surrounding skin.
- Growth Pattern: This subtype tends to grow slowly over an extended period, sometimes resembling a large, flat freckle. It can be challenging to distinguish from benign pigmented lesions.
- Risk Factors: Cumulative sun exposure over many years is the primary risk factor for lentigo maligna melanoma.
Acral Lentiginous Melanoma:
- Appearance: Acral lentiginous melanoma is relatively uncommon and typically occurs on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or under the nails. It appears as a dark-coloured, irregularly shaped lesion with a potential for ulceration.
- Growth Pattern: This subtype often grows horizontally across the skin surface before invading deeper layers. It can be challenging to detect due to its location in less exposed areas.
- Risk Factors: While sun exposure may play a role, acral lentiginous melanoma is not strongly associated with UV exposure. Genetic factors and skin pigmentation may be more relevant in its development.
- Appearance: Nodular melanoma is an aggressive subtype that appears as a raised, often dome-shaped, lump on the skin. Its colour is typically uniform, ranging from brown to black, and it may lack the uneven colouring seen in other melanoma subtypes. Nodular melanoma may not have the ABCDE features typically associated with melanoma.
- Growth Pattern: Unlike some other subtypes, nodular melanoma tends to grow vertically into the deeper layers of the skin rather than spreading horizontally. It is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage due to its rapid growth.
- Risk Factors: Nodular melanoma can occur in both sun-exposed and less-exposed areas. UV exposure and genetic factors may contribute to its development.
ABCDEs of Melanoma
Understanding the ABCDEs can help you recognize potential signs of melanoma:
- A is for Asymmetry: One half of the mole doesn’t match the other.
- B is for Border: Irregular or poorly defined edges.
- C is for Color: Varied shades within the mole.
- D is for Diameter: Larger than the eraser of a pencil.
- E is for Evolving: Any change in size, shape, colour, or elevation.
Best Ways to Avoid Getting Melanoma
Prevention is the best defence against melanoma. Here are some essential tips to minimize your risk:
- Protect Your Skin: Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses.
- Seek Shade: Limit your time in direct sunlight, especially during peak hours (10 AM to 4 PM).
- Avoid Tanning Beds: The UV radiation from tanning beds increases your risk of skin cancer.
- Stay Informed: Regularly check your skin for changes and consult a dermatologist for professional skin checks.
- Know Your Family History: If melanoma runs in your family, you may be at a higher risk, so inform your healthcare provider.
FAQs about Melanoma
1. What are the different types of skin cancer?
- Skin cancer includes basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, among others.
2. How does UV radiation contribute to skin cancer?
- UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds can damage DNA in skin cells, leading to cancerous growth.
3. Are there risk factors other than sun exposure for melanoma?
- Yes, genetics, family history, and a weakened immune system can also increase the risk of melanoma.
4. Can skin cancer be prevented completely?
- While it can’t be prevented entirely, taking protective measures significantly reduces the risk.
5. What is the treatment for melanoma?
- Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy, depending on the stage and extent of the cancer.
6. How often should I get a skin check from a dermatologist?
- It is recommended to have a professional skin check at least once a year, more frequently if you have risk factors.
7. Are all moles cancerous?
- No, most moles are benign, but it’s crucial to monitor them for any changes.
8. What are the warning signs of advanced melanoma?
- Advanced melanoma may cause symptoms like unexplained weight loss, pain, and swollen lymph nodes.
9. Can children get melanoma?
- While rare, melanoma can occur in children. It’s essential to protect them from sun exposure.
10. Are there any promising advancements in melanoma treatment? – Yes, ongoing research has led to the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies that have shown promise in treating advanced melanoma.
Is it a Mole or Skin Cancer?
The main difference between a mole and melanoma lies in their nature, appearance, and potential health implications:
- Nature: Moles, also known as nevi, are typically benign (non-cancerous) growths on the skin. They are quite common and can appear anywhere on the body.
- Appearance: Moles are usually small, round or oval-shaped, and evenly coloured. They can be brown, black, tan, or even pink, and they often have a uniform hue throughout.
- Changes Over Time: While moles can change slightly over time, such as becoming slightly raised or changing colour, these changes are usually gradual and minimal.
- Borders: Moles tend to have well-defined, smooth borders that distinguish them from the surrounding skin.
- Symmetry: They are often symmetrical, meaning one half looks like the other when divided in half.
- Size: Moles are typically smaller in size, often less than the diameter of a pencil eraser (6 mm).
- Risk: Most moles are harmless and do not pose a significant health risk. However, certain types of moles may have a slightly increased risk of developing skin cancer over time.
- Nature: Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that originates in the melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin (skin pigment). Unlike moles, melanoma is cancerous and can be life-threatening if not detected and treated early.
- Appearance: Melanoma often appears as an irregularly shaped, asymmetrical lesion with varying colours within it. It can be brown, black, pink, red, or even white, and the colours may be unevenly distributed.
- Changes Over Time: Melanoma can change rapidly. It may grow larger, change shape, become elevated, or exhibit noticeable changes in colour within a short period.
- Borders: Melanoma typically has irregular, jagged, or poorly defined borders that blend into the surrounding skin.
- Symmetry: Unlike moles, melanoma is often asymmetrical, meaning one half looks different from the other when divided in half.
- Size: Melanoma can vary in size, and it may not conform to the guideline of being smaller than the diameter of a pencil eraser.
- Risk: Melanoma is a highly aggressive form of skin cancer. If left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and become life-threatening. Early detection and treatment are crucial for a good prognosis.
It’s important to note that early detection and treatment are crucial for all types of melanoma. If you notice any suspicious skin changes, such as the growth or changes in colour, size, shape, or texture of a mole or lesion, it is essential to consult a dermatologist for a thorough evaluation and, if necessary, a biopsy to determine the subtype and stage of melanoma. Early intervention can significantly improve the prognosis for melanoma patients.