Melanoma Cancer: What It Is and What You Need to Know

Skin cancers are extremely common, and chances are good that someone you know has been treated for some type of minor skin cancer or precancer. It’s easy to feel a little desensitized to the idea of developing some form of skin cancer yourself, but you should always pay attention to changes in your skin.

Young woman in the sun

Melanoma cancer is dangerous and potentially fatal. Though it accounts for less than 1 percent of cancer cases, the Skin Cancer Foundation reported that one person dies from melanoma every hour.

The main reason this skin cancer is so dangerous is because it can spread quickly to other organs, which is why catching it early is so important. When diagnosed in time, most instances can be treated and cured.

Causes and signs of melanoma

Like with other types of skin cancer, UV exposure from the sun and tanning beds is the most common cause of melanoma cancer. People who have two or more blood relatives that have had the disease are also at greater risk of developing it.

Melanoma occurs when your skin cell DNA gets damaged by UV radiation. This causes the cells to grow out of control, forming a tumor. Melanoma tumors look like moles and can sometimes develop from a mole.

The best way to prevent melanoma is to protect your skin from the sun. You should also perform a monthly skin self-exam, checking your body from head to toe for unusual growths or changes in your skin. Skin cancer can develop anywhere on your body. When looking for melanoma, follow the ABCDE rule:

  • Asymmetry: one side is different from the other
  • Border: the mole has uneven edges
  • Color: the mole has varying shades of color
  • Diameter: the growth is larger than the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving: the look of the growth is changing over time

Treatment for melanoma

The best outcomes can be expected when the cancer is detected before it has penetrated deeper layers of the skin. If you suspect a mole may be cancerous, make an appointment with a dermatologist. The doctor will examine the spot and take a biopsy or suggest treatment. A biopsy entails removing a small amount of tissue and examining it in a lab to look for cancer cells. Your physician may also perform other diagnostic tests to determine whether the cancer has spread.

Treatment depends on the size of the tumor and whether or not the cancer has spread. Options include:

  • Surgery. According to the National Cancer Institute, this typically involves removing the tumor and some tissue around it. This is the primary treatment at any stage.
  • Chemotherapy. A treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells and stop them from spreading.
  • Radiation therapy. This option uses radiation to kill cancer cells and stop them from spreading.
  • Immunotherapy. This treatment stimulates your own immune system to fight the cancer.

Some combination of these therapies may be used, based on the stage and the situation. Melanoma is a serious disease, but there are many smart ways to keep yourself safe. Protect your skin from the sun, avoid tanning beds and conduct regular self-exams to check for anything unusual. If you do notice any suspicious spots during a skin exam, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Image source: Flickr

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