Melanoma

There are 3 main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and melanoma. The most common skin cancer in the United States is basal cell which is a slow-growing cancer that rarely ever spreads to other parts of the body while squamous cell can on occasion spread. Melanoma is the least common but is potentially life threatening. The word melanoma comes from the Greek words, melas (black) and –oma (tumor).

Melanocytes are cells that produce the skin coloring or protective pigment called melanin. When exposed to sunlight or UV rays, the skin darkens because the melanin in your skin increases. The increase in skin melanin (tan) protects the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Both light and dark-skinned people have melanin, which gives color to the skin, hair, and parts of the eye. Dark-skinned and Asian people are not risk free of developing melanoma.

Melanoma is a malignant form of skin cancer that is due to an uncontrolled growth of melanocytes which are found predominantly in the skin but also in the eye, vagina, anus, and even other areas of sun protected skin (ie: soles of feet). Because most of these cells still make melanin, melanoma tumors are often tan, brown or black. The UV rays can damage the DNA in skin cells, generate free radicals that damage the enzymes which usually repair those cells, and also suppress immune function in the skin.

It is not exactly known what causes melanoma skin cancer but there are risk factors linked to this disease. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is one of those factors and it can come from sunlight or artificial sources like tanning beds. Other risk factors include multiple atypical (funny looking) moles, fair skin, family history of melanoma, weakened immune system (from HIV infection or organ transplant), and age. However, much of the skin damage may be due to sun burns that occurred early in life (before age 20).

Melanoma can be cured if it is caught in an early stage. If not caught early, it potentially spreads to other parts of the body such as lungs, liver, bones, brain (Stage IV). Once melanoma cells reach vital internal organs, they are harder to treat and are much less likely to be cured.

QUESTIONS FOR YOUR DERMATOLOGY PROVIDER:

  1. What can I do to help protect myself against skin cancer?
  2. How do I know if changes on my skin could be cancerous?
  3. How do I know what my risk factors are for skin cancer?
  4. Does my immune system or genetics increase my risk factors?
  5. Do any moles on my body look suspicious for skin cancer?
  6. Is it safe for me to use a tanning bed?

RATE YOUR SKIN CANCER RISK:

  1. Do I have fair or freckled skin that burns easily?
  2. Do I have a family history of Melanoma?
  3. Do I have light-colored eyes and hair?
  4. Do I have any irregularly shaped moles?
  5. Have I ever used a tanning bed?
  6. Have I had a lot of sun exposure or a history of serious sunburns?