Have you noticed that a previously normal mole on your face has doubled in size or taken an irregular shape? Perhaps you've developed some unusual moles lately? Having a lot of moles on your face or body isn't a problem as long as they don't change their appearance in a strange way. Benign moles are dark or brown in colour and about the size of a pencil eraser. If they have an asymmetrical shape or irregular borders, they could be signs of melanoma.
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin or the pigment that gives skin its color. Melanoma can occur on any part of the body, but it most often develops on the skin around the eyes, nose or lips. Melanoma can also occur on internal organs such as the liver or brain.
Melanoma is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, accounting for more than 1,400 deaths in 2019. The five-year survival rate for persons with melanoma is around 95% if the tumour is detected early and treated effectively, according to cancer data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. If melanoma has spread to other organs by the time it is discovered, the survival probability drops to roughly 14%.
Because melanoma can develop on any part of the body, it is important for people to learn how to properly check their skin every day. There are also specific self-examinations that should be performed monthly or more often if your doctor prescribes them. If you are unsure when or how often to perform these examinations, talk with your doctor about what would be best for you based on your risk factors and lifestyle habits.
Symptoms of Melanoma
Changes in mole features are the most prevalent melanoma symptom. Another common symptom is the development of abnormal moles with an odd colour, shape, or a border irregularity.
Melanoma has different physical symptoms depending on where the cancer cells originate. When they appear on the scalp, foot, hands or genitals, however, melanoma warning signs may include:
- Dryness of the skin
- A sore that doesn't heal
- Dark lesions or spots that aren't moles
- Thickening, redness, scaling or crusting of the skin in affected areas
Melanoma can occur on any part of the body, but it most often develops on the skin around the eyes, nose or lips. It can also occur on internal organs such as the liver or brain. Symptoms of melanoma on areas with thicker skin are more difficult to detect. Uncircumcised men will notice symptoms such as darkening of the foreskin in their groin area, as the majority of melanomas in men occur in this region.
Stages of Melanoma
The stages of melanoma are determined by how deeply melanoma tumors have invaded the skin. Melanoma is staged from 0 to IV, with melanoma at stage 0 meaning that the tumour is still on the surface of the skin and melanoma at stage IV meaning that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. There are four main stages of melanoma:
- Stage I melanoma is a localized melanoma, which means that the melanoma is confined to one area of the body. The five-year survival rate for people with stage I melanoma is about 98%.
- Stage II melanoma is a regional melanoma, which means that the cancer cells has spread beyond the original site but are still confined to one or more nearby lymph nodes, a small bean-shaped cluster of immune system cells. The five-year survival rate for people with stage II melanoma is about 96%.
- Stage III melanoma is a melanoma that has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues under your skin and may include cancerous melanocytes in one or more areas distant from the original melanoma site, such as lymph nodes on both sides of the body (most often in the groin), each side of the pelvis, liver, bones, brain, lung or upper digestive tract. The five-year survival rate for people with stage III melanoma is about 83% if the melanomas have not yet reached nearby organs and 58% if they already have.
- Stage IV melanoma is metastatic melanoma, which means that melanoma cells have spread to several different parts of your body such as the liver, lungs, brain and bones. The five-year survival rate for people with stage IV melanoma is about 16%.
Source: Bristol Myers Squibb
Causes of Melanoma
Melanomas happen when the DNA in a cell experiences damage that changes its appearance and function, causing it to grow out-of-control instead of dying like it should. Exposure to ultraviolet light from sunlight damages DNA in our cells, but most melanomas form when melanocytes are exposed to ultraviolet light over many years. The following are common risk factors for melanoma:
- A family history of skin cancer
- Fair skin
- Frequent sun exposure
- Having many abnormal moles
Treatment Options for Melanoma
Melanoma treatment begins with a physical examination by your doctor, followed by diagnostic procedures such as a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Depending on the severity of the cancer cells, the treatment for melanoma may include:
- Radiation therapy
- Stem cell transplantation
Targeted medications that attack specific proteins in melanoma cells can also be used to treat the disease. However, most cancer medications are only prescribed to melanoma patients in advanced stages.
Prevention of Melanoma
There are several ways to reduce the risk of melanoma. One is by limiting one's exposure to the sun, especially between 10am and 2pm. Although melanoma can appear in any part of the body, it is more likely to occur in a sun-exposed area. Other ways to protect yourself from UV exposure include:
- Wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts when going outside
- Covering your head and neck with a scarf or by wearing a wide-brimmed hat
- Wearing sunglasses that offer UV protection
- Applying sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher before heading outdoors
- Seeking shade whenever possible by staying indoors or under an umbrella
- Avoiding tanning beds at all costs
If you find any acneiform lesions (acne-like bumps), make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. Acneiform lesions do not mean you have cancer, but it is important to get them checked.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer, but early diagnosis and treatment can often lead to a cure. Stick to a healthy diet and lifestyle if you want to naturally treat or prevent melanoma. You can also seek assistance from a local nutritionist or naturopath.