Melanoma: The Most Dangerous Skin Cancer

Cancer |

Recent presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain confirmed on August 16 that he has again been diagnosed with melanoma. Melanoma is a form of skin cancer. Of the three commonly known types of skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell are the others), melanoma is the most dangerous.

Who Is at Risk?
Melanoma is ranked the sixth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common in women. While adults are more likely than children to be diagnosed with melanoma, it can strike at any age.

Certain characteristics increase one’s risk of developing melanoma. These risk factors include:

  • Family and/or personal history of the disease.
  • Having a fair complexion.
  • Chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation found in sunlight.
  • Excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays before the age of 18.
  • Having unusual looking moles.

While the risk of developing melanoma may be due to a combination of these factors, overexposure to the sun’s UV rays is believed to be the most significant contributor.

Melanoma Diagnosis and Treatment
Malignant melanoma, unlike other types of skin cancer, can spread quickly to other parts of the body. If the cancer is detected at an early stage, it can usually be treated and cured. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes some of the warning signs of melanoma:

  • change in shape, color or size of a mole
  • bleeding or oozing from a mole
  • appearance of a new mole
  • itchiness, tenderness or swelling of a mole

Physicians should look for these changes, but patients are more likely to detect the changes earlier and should know when to seek a medical opinion.

If a doctor believes a mole or discolored area of the skin does not look normal, he or she should make a local excision (cut the mole or area out) and then look at the specimen under a microscope to see if there are any cancerous cells. This procedure is known as a biopsy. If it is determined that the cells are cancerous, the next step is to measure both the thickness of the tumor and how deep it has penetrated the skin.

Treatment for melanoma depends on the stage at which the cancer is found. According to the NCI, the stages include:

Stage 0 — The abnormal cells are only found on the outer layer of the skin.

Stage 1 — Cancerous cells are found on the outer and the upper-inner layers of the skin. The thickness of the tumor is less than 1/16-inch thick.

Stage 2 — Cancerous cells have penetrated the lower-inner layer of the skin and the tumor thickness is between 1/16 and 1/6 of an inch.

Stage 3 — The tumor may have spread to deeper layers in the skin and additional cancer cells may be detected in the surrounding area.

Stage 4 — The tumor has spread to other parts of the body.

Recurrent — The cancer has come back after having already been treated at one time; it may or may not occur in the same site as before.

Currently, there are four types of treatment for melanoma: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biological therapy (boosting the body’s immune system to fight the cancer). Treatment recommendations are based on the stage of the tumor. Surgery, however, is the first treatment used for all of the stages of melanoma. If further management is needed, then the other therapies might be employed alone or in combination.

Melanoma Prevention
Exposure to the sun’s UV rays significantly increases the risk of developing melanoma. Therefore, staying out of the sun, and wearing protective clothing and an appropriate sunscreen are highly recommended steps to take to prevent the development of melanoma later on in life. A “healthy tan” is not healthy at all.

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