May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Melanoma may not be the most common type of skin cancer, but it is considered to be the most serious by the medical community due to its high probability of spreading and becoming fatal. The main risk factor for developing it is overexposure to the sun, so being mindful of time spent outdoors and always taking care to use a strong sunscreen are effective ways to reduce the risk of developing it. Those with moles are also more susceptible to this type of skin cancer, making self-monitoring crucial for early detection.
What Is It?
Cancerous growths develop when the DNA of skin cells experiences extreme damage. This is typically caused by intense exposure to ultraviolet radiation, either from the sun or tanning beds. The damage triggers maladaptive genetic mutations, causing the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. These often take place in moles but can affect other areas of the skin as well. In fact, when a melanoma develops, it often takes the form of a mole, though the coloring can be very different.
Causes and Prevention
Genetics, as well as skin type, can cause a person to be more prone to developing this type of skin cancer. The following factors have been shown to increase your susceptibility:
- High mole and/or freckle density
- The presence of atypical moles, age/sun/liver spots or birthmarks
- Having pale or fair skin
- Having red, orange, or light-colored hair
- Getting sunburned fairly regularly
- Frequent exposure to the sun
- Family history of this or other skin cancers
Unfortunately, many of these factors are unavoidable and out of an individual’s control. However, regulating the amount of time you spend in the sun, as well as practicing proper skin care strategies when in the sun, are factors that a pre-disposed person can take extra care to control. Avoid tanning beds at all costs, wear clothes that prevent the penetration of the sun’s rays, opt for sunscreen with a minimum 4-star UVA protection rating, and regularly (and liberally) reapply it, especially after swimming.
Signs and Symptoms
The first signs and symptoms present as atypical moles or irregular marks on the surface of the skin. Dermatologists advise patients to use the ABCDE self-examination strategy in order to monitor their moles and be aware of any changes. Using this method, the most common signs and symptoms can be noticed early, making your overall prognosis better.
- Asymmetry- An easy way to detect asymmetry is to mentally draw a line down the middle of a mole. Do the two sides match? If not, this is a big red flag.
- Borders- Normal (benign) moles have smooth, even borders. A mole with notched or uneven borders is a cause for concern.
- Color- Most moles are an identical shade of brown. Having a variety of shades and/or colors is another big warning sign, especially if those colors include red, white, or blue.
- Diameter- Benign moles typically have a small diameter. The diameters of atypical lesions often exceed the size of a pencil tip eraser.
- Evolving- Common moles do not change much over time. When a mole begins to evolve in any way, contact a doctor.
There are four types of melanomas. The most common, ‘Superficial Spreading’, presents on the abdomen, back, or limbs. Cells grow slowly at first before spreading across the skin. ‘Nodulars‘ grow more quickly than others and tend to turn red. ‘Lentingo Malignas‘ are less common and typically affect older people. Starting as a type of stain or freckle, it grows slowly and is less dangerous than other types. The final, ‘Acral Lentiginous’, is the rarest type and usually appears on the palms, under the nails, or on the soles of the feet.
After noticing changes in the moles or skin, seek medical help immediately. Dermatologists like those at Universal Dermatology & Vein Care can use microscopic or photographic tools to examine the lesion (‘skin abnormality’). If the doctor suspects the presence of skin cancer after this examination, he/she may refer you to a cancer specialist in order to undergo a biopsy, which involves taking a sample of the lesion in order to test the cells in the laboratory. A biopsy will confirm or deny the presence of cancerous traits in your lesion.
For the most part, methods for treating skin cancer are similar to those that treat other types of cancer. However, unlike with many cancers that affect the body internally, skin cancer is easier to remove completely, as it is presented on the outside of the body. Removal surgery is the most common treatment. The procedure involves cutting out the lesion as well as the tissue surrounding it.
If the lesion is too large for this procedure- meaning it covers an extensive area of the skin- a skin graft may become necessary. Skin grafting is a surgical procedure by which normal, healthy skin is removed from one part of the body and is transferred to the affected area. In the event that it has spread to the lymph nodes, a biopsy may also be performed there. Chemotherapy, biological therapy (using drugs to strengthen the immune system), and photodynamic therapy (using drugs, light, and radiation) may also be used in treatment, though they are less common.
Although it is considered the most dangerous form of skin cancer, it can still be treated successfully. When recognized and treated early enough, it is almost always curable. However, neglecting to take care of your skin (especially if it is sensitive or relates to any of the risk factors listed above) and failing to monitor and report changes can allow the skin cancer to advance and spread to other parts of the body. Like other cancers, if melanoma spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat. Preventative care and early action greatly improve your prognosis and, as such, are invaluable tools for beating this type of skin cancer.
If you have any questions about skin cancer prevention or detection, contact the experts at Universal Dermatology & Vein Care!