Melanoma: Risk Factors, Symptoms, Staging and Treatment
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, but it is curable when melanoma symptoms are recognized early. Without treatment, metastatic melanoma can develop and spread to other areas of the body, which can be fatal. Understanding the symptoms, staging and treatment of the disease is the key to preventing deaths from this type of cancer.
Risk Factors for Melanoma
Several factors may make one more at risk for developing melanoma, including:
- Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) lights through sunlight, sun lamps or tanning beds
- The presence of more than 100 moles on the skin
- Light hair, fair skin and freckles
- Family history of the disease
- Weakened immune system
- Older age
- Being male
- A generating condition called xeroderma pigmentosum that affects the skin’s ability to repair harm to DNA
Most people have moles on their skin, and these spots are typically harmless, but certain characteristics in them may indicate melanoma or other skin cancers.
Look for the following signs when examining moles on your skin, and if you notice these symptoms, contact a doctor immediately:
- Asymmetry – Harmless moles are symmetrical. If you draw an imaginary line down their centers, both sides match in size and shape. Melanoma pictures show moles that are asymmetrical with halves that do not match in size or shape.
- Borders – Bengin moles have even, smooth borders. Moles that may indicate melanoma have uneven, notched or scalloped borders.
- Color – Benign moles are typically one uniform color. Moles caused by melanoma may appear red, blue or white or feature various shades of brown, black or tan.
- Diameter – Malignant moles are generally larger than benign ones and typically have a diameter greater than 1/4 inch
After initially diagnosing melanoma, physicians classify the cancer according to its level of severity. The stages of melanoma refer to the cancer’s thickness, degree of spreading and depth of penetration.
Early melanomas in Stage 0 or I have not yet invaded the skin and are noninvasive. Stage II melanomas are characterized by larger tumors that grow slowly, and Stage III melanomas are even larger and may grow rapidly. The most advanced melanomas, those in Stages III and IV, are metastatic melanomas that have spread to other areas of the body.
Melanoma Treatment Options
Treatment options for melanoma depend on the stage of cancer diagnosed in a patient. Surgery is always the primary treatment, regardless of stage, and is used to remove the cancerous cells and some of the surrounding normal tissue. Following surgery, patients may undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy or biologic therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Targeted therapy may also be performed to kill cancer cells with less damage done to healthy cells than radiation or chemotherapy.