Melanoma

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and develops from melanin-containing cells. These cells produce the pigment that gives color to the skin and hair. People with fair skin, red or blond hair, and who spend a lot of time in strong sunlight are at high risk for developing melanoma. Avoiding prolonged sun or other UV radiation exposure is important in preventing this condition. The diagnosis is confirmed by taking a sample of the spot (biopsy) for testing. Treatment depends on the stage at diagnosis. If diagnosed early, surgery may cure this condition. If diagnosed at a later stage, chemotherapy is often necessary.

Risks

Melanoma occurs when abnormal melanin-producing cells grow uncontrollably. These abnormal cells destroy the normal cells around them and can spread through blood or lymph channels. The main cause of melanoma is prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning salons. People with fair skin and red or blond hair are at especial risk of developing melanoma. There are also some rare conditions which run in families that make people more likely to develop melanoma. The highest rates of skin cancer in the world are in Australia and New Zealand. Melanoma is most common in middle-aged and older adults. Men are slightly more likely than women to develop this condition.

Symptoms

Early signs of melanoma include a change in an existing mole or the development of a new, dark spot, mole or freckle on the skin. These moles are often asymmetric, have an irregular border, and they may change in color, get bigger or change in some other way. Hidden melanomas may occur on feet, palms of hands, in fingernail beds or in the mouth, eye, digestive or urinary tract.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is made by a doctor assessing symptoms, examining the skin and taking a sample of the mole (a biopsy) to investigate for melanoma.

Treatment

The treatment depends on the size of the cancer and whether it has already spread by the time of diagnosis, as well as the affected person's general health and personal preferences. In early stages of melanoma, it can be treated by surgery to remove the suspect mole. If the melanoma has spread beyond the skin, there are different treatment options such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or biological therapy. The treating doctor can give the best advice on treatment in individual cases.

Prevention

Prevention includes wearing sunscreen, avoiding the sun at the middle of the day and wearing protective clothes. Avoiding the use of solariums and tanning beds also helps to prevent skin cancer. Early diagnosis is very important for the best possible recovery outcome. People at risk of melanoma should have their skin checked by an experienced doctor regularly.