Melanoma is a form of cancer that attacks melanocytes, found in the lower part of the epidermis (top layer of the skin). Melanocytes make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. Although cutaneous melanoma (melanoma of the skin) causes the majority of skin cancer related deaths, it is one of the less common types of skin cancer. Melanoma may begin in a mole or normal skin, but can also begin in other pigmented tissues, such as in the eye or in the intestines. Despite several years of extensive laboratory and clinical research, the only effective cure is surgical removal of the primary tumor before it has metastasized.

What is Melanoma In Situ?

The earliest stage of melanoma is referred to as melanoma in situ. The tumor cells are confined to the epidermis and have not invaded the underlying skin or metastasized to other organs. If a melanoma in situ is completely excised, the potential for metastasis is eliminated. A special type of melanoma in situ is designated lentigo maligna and is clinically an irregular brown patch on the head and neck of elderly patients. On biopsy, the atypical melanocytes are confined to the epidermis and the underlying tissue has evidence of marked sun damage.

What does Melanoma look like?

A popular way to remember the signs and symptoms of melanoma is the “ABCD” method:

  • Asymmetrical skin lesion
  • Border of the lesion is irregular
  • Color: melanomas usually have multiple colors.
  • Diameter: moles greater than 5 mm are more likely to be melanomas than smaller moles.

Risk factors for melanoma include the following:

  • Unusual moles
  • Exposure to natural sunlight
  • Exposure to artificial ultraviolet light (tanning booth)
  • Family or personal history of melanoma
  • Caucasian and older than 20 years
  • Red or blond hair
  • Fair skin and freckles
  • Blue or green colored eyes

How is Melanoma diagnosed?

Because the earlier stages of the disease may look identical to normal moles and may even be the same color as normal skin, experience is required in diagnosing melanoma. The following procedures and tests can help detect melanoma if an area of the skin or a mole begins to looks abnormal:

  • Skin examination: A doctor or nurse examines the skin to look for moles, birthmarks, or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture
  • Biopsy: A local excision is done to remove as much of the suspicious mole or lesion as possible. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells

How is Melanoma treated?

For localized cutaneous melanoma, surgery is the optimal choice of therapy. If the malignant melanoma is well advanced, a multidisciplinary approach is taken involving the following:

  • Surgery
  • Adjuvant treatment
  • Chemotherapy and immunotherapy
  • Radiation and other therapies

How to prevent Melanoma

Minimize your exposure to ultraviolet radiation in the form of sunlight and/or tanning beds. Wear protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long trousers, and broad-brimmed hats. Using a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 15 or higher on exposed skin is recommended by doctors and dermatologists.