Skin Cancer

How To Recognize Skin Melanoma – Catching Cancer Early Can Save Your Life

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The most dangerous form of skin cancer, these cancerous growths develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations (genetic defects) that lead skin cells to multiply rapidly and form tumors.

These tumors originate in the pigment-producing melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis.  Melanomas often resemble moles; some develop from moles.

The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but they can also be skin-colored, pink, blue or white.


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Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional UV exposure (frequently leading to sunburn) in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease.  Melanoma kills an estimated 8,790 people in the U.S. annually.

If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal.

While it is almost always curable, but if it’s not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal.  While it is not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths.  The American Cancer Society estimates that at present, about 120,000 new cases of melanoma in the U.S. are diagnosed in a year.

Early Melanoma Warning Signs

Even if you have carefully practiced sun safety all summer, it’s important to continue to be vigilant about your skin in fall, winter and beyond.  Throughout the year, you should examine your skin head to toe once a month, looking for suspicious lesions.

Self-exams can help you identify potential skin cancers early, when they can almost always be completely cured.  Lesions that change, itch, or bleed, or don’t heal are also alarm signals.

It is so vital to catch melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, early that physicians developed two strategies for early recognition of the disease: the ACCDE’s and the Ugly Duckling sign.

Do You Know Your ABCDE’s?

Fist, for a successful self-exam, you obviously need to know what you’re looking for.  As a general rule, to spot either melanomas or non-melanoma skin cancers (such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), take note of any new moles or growths, and any existing growths that begin to grow or change significantly in any other way.

Every month, inspect your body for any skin changes and routinely visit your dermatologist for a complete skin examination.  Early detection of melanoma can be lifesaving because this cancer may be curable in early stages,

Any irregularity in an existing or newly developed pigmented skin lesion should be examined immediately by your dermatologist.  These irregularities may include asymmetry, an uneven border, color variations, diameter of more than 6mm or evolving changes of the lesion.

  • Asymmetry.  One half does not match the other half
  • Border Irregularity.  The edges are notched are ragged
  • Color.  Varied shades of tan, black and brown
  • Diameter.  Greater than 6 millimeters
  • Evolving.  Change in size, shape, or shade of color.

Who gets melanoma?

Anyone can get melanoma.  Most people have light skin, but people who have brown and black skin also get melanoma.

Some people have a higher risk of getting melanoma.  These people have the following traits:


  • Fair skin (The risk is higher if the person also has red or blond hair and blue or green eyes.)
  • Sun-sensitive skin (rarely tans or burns easily)
  • 50-plus moles, large moles, or unusual looking moles

If you had bad sunburns or spent time tanning (sun, tanning beds, or sun lamps), you also have a higher risk of getting melanoma.

Family/Medical History

  • Melanoma runs in the family (parent, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle had melanoma)
  • You had another skin cancer, but most especially another melanoma
  • A weakened immune system

More People Getting Melanoma

Fewer people are getting most types of cancer.  Melanoma is different.  More people are getting melanoma.  Melanoma is now the most common cancer among people 25-29 years old.  Even teenagers are getting melanoma.

Diagnosis, Treatment and Results

How do dermatologists diagnose melanoma?

To diagnose melanoma, a dermatologist begin’s by looking at a patient’s skin.  A dermatologist will carefully examine moles and other suspicious spots.  To get a better look, a dermatologist may use a device called a dermascope.

The device shines a light on the skin.  It magnifies the skin.  This helps the dermatologist see pigment and structures in the skin.

If the dermatologist finds a mole or other spot that looks like melanoma, the dermatologist will remove it (or part of  it).  The removed skin will be sent to lab.  Your dermatologist may call this a biopsy.  Melanoma cannot be diagnosed without a biopsy.

The biopsy is quick, safe and easy for a dermatologist to perform.  This type of biopsy should not cause anxiety.  The discomfort and risks are minimal.

If the biopsy report says that the patient has melanoma, the report also may tell the stage of the melanoma.  Stage tells the doctor how deeply the cancer has grown in the skin.

How Dermatologists Treat Melanoma?

The type of treatment a patient receives depends on the following:

  • How deeply the melanoma has grown in the skin
  • Whether the mealnoma has spread to other parts of the body
  • The patient’s health

The following describes treatment used for melanoma.

Surgery:  When treating melanoma,  doctors want to remove all of the cancer.  When the cancer has not spread, it is often possible for a dermatologist to remove the melanoma during an office visit.  The patient remains awake during the procedures listed below.

  • Excision:  To peform this, the dermatologist numbs the skin.  Then the dermatologist surgically cuts the melanoma and some of the normal looking skin around the melanoma.
  • Mohs surgery:   Surgeon removes only the cancer cells. One layer at a time.

When melanoma grows deeper into the skin or spreads, treatment becomes more complex.  Other treatments include:

  • Lymphadenectomy:  The surgery to remove lymph nodes
  • Immunotherapy: Help the patients immune system fight the cancer (injections)
  • Chemotherapy: Medicine that kills cancer cells
  • Radiation Therapy: X-Rays kill the cancer cells.

What Next?

This depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin.  If the melanoma is properly treated when it is in the top layer of skin, the cure rate is nearly 100%.  If the melanoma grows deeper into the skin or spread, the patient may die.

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