Although melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, it is one of the most aggressive. However, unlike many other types of cancer, the patient has a lot of control when it comes to prevention and early detection.
With the proper precautions, including keeping your skin safe from the sun and regular visits to the dermatologist, melanoma can be removed from the body during its early stages—or avoided altogether.
What Is Melanoma?
Every person has cells called melanocyte in their bodies, which create the pigment of the skin. Melanoma is a mutation in the melanocyte cell, which spreads fairly quickly. The cancer is most likely to develop on the backs or trunks of men and the legs of women—though it can form on any part of the body.
Importance of Sun Safety
Melanoma is typically caused by too much exposure to sunlight. The sun’s UV rays damage the DNA in melanocyte cells and the affected cell grows uncontrollably, ultimately becoming melanoma.
“Overexposure to the sun is the absolute leading cause of melanoma,” reiterates Diana Stephens, a dermatologist with Cayuga Medical Associates. “Once melanoma forms, it spreads quickly, which is why wearing sunscreen is so vital for keeping your body safe and healthy.”
The ABCDEs of Melanoma
Because melanoma is a disease that lives on a person’s skin, doctors can check for early signs during your yearly physical—and you can easily check yourself at home. If you see a mole on your body that’s new or changing, a good rule of thumb is to look for the “ABCDEs” of melanoma.
The A stands for asymmetry. Moles should typically be round and symmetrical. A misshapen mole or one with a spike sticking out is worth noting. Along the same lines, B stands for border. Melanoma moles tend to have fuzzy or irregular borders, rather than the perfectly round borders of a regular mole. The C stands for color change and variegation, which means there are multiple colors within the same mole. D is for diameter. If a mole is growing in size, and becomes more than 5mm, or about the size of a pencil eraser. Finally, E is a catchall and stands for evolution. If your mole exhibits any of these traits or appears to be changing over time, it’s a good idea to get it checked by a dermatologist.
“I tell people to look for an ugly duckling,” explains Stephens. “Most people have a signature type of mole or a few types. As long as all of your moles look similar, you’re likely okay. If there is one that looks different, the ugly duckling, it’s a sign to come in.”
Have Each Other’s Back
Though it’s important to have a primary care physician or dermatologist check your moles each year, many patients are the first to spot a cancerous mole by checking for those ABCDEs. Most dermatologists recommend checking your moles at least once every three months, but individuals with light skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair need to check themselves more frequently than those with darker skin.
“Because melanoma tends to develop on men’s backs, it’s a good idea to have a partner or friend check your back periodically,” suggests Stephens. “Ask them to note any ugly ducklings or changes. If anything looks suspect, take a picture to track changes and show your dermatologist.”
If your doctor suspects melanoma, a biopsy is needed to confirm whether or not it’s cancerous. If the biopsy comes back positive, treatment varies depending on the depth of the melanoma. At a minimum, minor surgery will be needed to remove the mole. Patients with melanoma that’s more than 0.7 or 0.8 millimeters typically need to see a surgical oncologist, who will biopsy their lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, additional surgery may be needed, and the patient would potentially need to undergo chemotherapy or immune therapy.