Melanoma is a cancer of melanocytes, the pigment producing cells of the body. Melanomas usually begin on the surface of the skin but can grow and spread through the body causing a life threatening illness.
Anyone can get a melanoma. Risk factors include fair skin, a history of sunburns, having more than 50 moles, having atypical moles and a family history of melanoma. Melanomas tend to occur in sun-exposed areas in fair skinned individuals. In skin of color, melanoma can occur on the hands, feet, or under the nails. Very rarely, melanomas can occur in the eyes, in the mouth, in the genital area or on internal organs.
Melanoma is easily treated if identified early so having regular skin examinations by a dermatologist can be truly lifesaving. In addition, you should “get to know your moles” by conducting regular examinations of your own skin. During self-examinations, suspicious moles can be recognized using the ABCDEs of melanoma:
- A is for asymmetry, meaning a mole is not the same on one side as the other
- B is for border irregularity, which refers to a border that is not straight
- C is for color variation, meaning more than one color in the same mole
- D is for diameter greater than 6mm, roughly the size of a pencil head eraser
- E is for evolving, a changing mole is a cause for concern
Should a mole fulfill any of these criteria, bring it to the attention of your dermatologist immediately.
A suspicious mole will likely be sampled, or biopsied, by your dermatologist. It will then be sent to a specialist called a dermatopathologist for analysis under a microscope. If a spot is diagnosed as a melanoma, surgical removal with a margin of normal skin will be necessary. In some cases, additional testing will be required to determine if there has been spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Once a melanoma has spread, it requires a different treatment plan that may include additional surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation. Early detection means easy cure, so be sure to check your skin frequently and, if you notice anything new or changing, bring it to the attention of your dermatologist immediately.