Melanoma is a tumor of the skin that is malignant (cancerous). It originates from melanocytes, which are the cells that color the skin. It is more serious than the more common skin cancers like basal cell or squamous cell cancer. This is because melanoma often spreads to other parts of the body. Melanoma can spread through the lymphatic system or through the bloodstream. Melanoma is the type of skin cancer that will kill a patient if it spreads throughout the body or if it is left untreated. Therefore, it is very important that patients that have been diagnosed with melanoma follow their dermatologist’s recommendations very closely.
Melanoma may appear as a new mole on the body or as a mole that has changed in size, shape, feeling, color, or has developed oozing or bleeding. It is important to recognize that melanoma can occur anywhere on the body. Most appear dark but can be flesh-colored or pink to red. Remember to look for the ABCDs of melanoma (A=Asymmetry, B=Border irregular, C=Color is varied throughout the lesion, D=Diameter greater than 6 millimeters).
If there is a question of skin cancer, the lesion should be removed. Skin pathologists will then analyze the skin. If found to be a melanoma, the lab will report how deep and aggressive it appears. Then, further physical exams, including lymph node exams, radiology studies (x-rays), and lab tests, will be done to look for signs of cancer cells spreading. This is called staging. It is most advanced if the growth extends deeper than 4 millimeters (which is less than 1/16 of an inch) into the skin. Even worse are melanomas that spread to the body tissue below the skin, show additional tumors around the original site, or have spread to the lymph nodes or other organs.
Surgery is the primary treatment for all stages of melanoma, as the other treatments for melanoma are often very unsuccessful. After the initial biopsy, a second surgical procedure is normally done to ensure complete removal. Usually, the biopsy site and rim of normal skin are removed (re-excision). Complete removal before it has spread is the only sure cure. Occasionally during the staging process, a procedure called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) may be needed. This allows for more accurate staging, but it has not been determined whether or not it helps in long-term prognosis. It is usually reserved for those patients with melanomas deeper than 1mm in depth or with other special characteristics.
Other treatments that may be used but are not as successful include chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells but may not be very effective. Radiation uses x-rays to kill the cancerous cells and shrink tumors, but it usually does not cure the patient. Some types of melanoma may need special types of radiation. Advanced tumors may also require removal of affected lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy. Some newer treatments may also be used to help the immune system itself fight cancer. These melanoma vaccines may also provide some hope.
In addition, patients need to become actively involved in their care and should do two sets of things: (1) monthly self-skin and lymph node exams, including having a spouse or significant other examine those areas that cannot be seen by the patient and (2) sun safety precautions including the following:
Determining prognosis in melanoma is sometimes difficult due to the many factors that influence how well a patient does. The most reliable, time-tested method of suggesting prognosis is the depth of invasion of the melanoma.For those patients with “in-Situ (confined within the top layer of skin)“ melanoma, surgery usually leads to 5 year survival rates in patients in 95-99% of the cases. For these patients, they are essentially cured from their surgery. If the melanoma is not confined to the top layer of skin, but has invasion that is less than 1mm in depth, 5 year survival rates are still very high at 85-90%. For those melanomas greater than 1mm in depth, 5 year survival rates are not as high and are clearly influenced by whether or not the melanoma has already spread to other parts of the body.
Overall, melanoma is a very serious disease if not the most serious, in dermatology. It is a disease that can kill patients if not diagnosed early and treated appropriately. It is vital that you follow your dermatologist’s recommendations very closely.
Clear Choice Dermatology provides advanced care for patients with early stages of melanoma. In the case of patients with advanced stages of melanoma, we refer them to local oncology experts who will continue their care with appropriate protocols and treatments. We also care for patients who are at higher risk of developing melanoma due to family history, genetic mutations, or having many abnormal moles. Our providers will evaluate your case and personalize your treatment plan.