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Melanoma: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About melanoma

Melanoma is a serious skin cancer that involves the uncontrolled growth of melanin producing skin cells (melanocytes). Melanin is a pigment responsible for skin and hair colour. Melanoma can develop in an existing mole, freckle or the normal skin of body parts exposed to sun such as shoulders, head, and the lower leg. Melanoma responds well to treatment, if diagnosed early. Nowadays, cases of melanoma are increasing due to increase of sunbathing practices and use of tanning beds.

Melanoma: Incidence, age, sex

People of all ages can have melanoma, though chances of developing melanoma are more in older adults. Fair-skinned, light-haired, freckled or blue-eyed people or those who have large, unusual-looking moles are at higher risk of developing melanoma. Moreover, a past history of skin burns or a family history of melanoma may also contribute to development of melanoma.

Signs and symptoms of melanoma: Diagnosis

The first sign of the developing melanoma is generally a change in appearance of an existing mole or occurrence of a new mole. There may be changes in size, shape, colour, border or texture of mole. Melanoma may appear as black, abnormal, ugly-looking mole or sometimes like a non-healing ulcer.

The diagnosis of melanoma is confirmed by performing a biopsy of the mole or area of the skin suspected of melanoma. The tiny portion of the suspected mole, is taken and sent to a pathological laboratory, where the pathologist examines the sample under a microscope for presence of cancer cells. The lymph nodes are also examined to assess the spread of melanoma to other parts of body.

Cause and prevention of melanoma

The primary and most common cause of occurrence of melanoma is an excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation of the sun. The genetic factors and immune system deficiencies also contribute to development of melanoma. Some may develop melanoma as a result of childhood sunburns and sun exposure.

Melanoma can be prevented by taking following precautions:

  • Avoidance of "peak" sunlight hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) when the sun's rays are most intense
  • Application of sunscreen lotion with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more, a few minutes before going outdoors
  • Reapplication of sunscreen every two hours, especially when doing outdoor activities
  • Wearing protective clothing like long-sleeve shirts, pants and a wide brimmed hat.
  • Protection of eyes by wearing ultra violet protected sunglasses
  • Avoid contact of ultraviolet radiation reflected by sand, water, snow, and ice.

Melanoma: Complication

The disease may spread to other parts of the body in advanced cases, causing cancer of the liver, lungs or the brain. Patients may suffer from the various side effects of the cancer treatment of melanoma. Moreover, there are increased chances of recurrence.

Melanoma: Treatment

Melanoma can be cured, if diagnosed at early stage of the disease. The treatment modality depends on the size, depth and spread of the melanoma. For small and shallow melanoma, confined to the skin (primary melanoma), minor surgery is performed to remove the affected skin. The surgeon may extend the surgical excision and remove large area of skin, if the melanoma is large and may have invaded the deeper tissues. In such cases, patients may require skin grafting also. In advanced stages, where the disease has spread to the lymph nodes and other organs, radiotherapy (cancer cells are killed through radiation) and chemotherapy (medicines to kill cancer cells) may be considered.