Melanoma is defined as a cancer that starts in melanocytes. It is a life threatening malignant tumor that originates in these cells. These are cells that make the skin coloring or protective pigment called melanin. Melanin helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of the sun. When exposed to sunlight, the melanin in your skin increases, and your skin darkens. The majority of melanomas are skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white.
Ultraviolet rays are a major risk factor for melanoma.
Melanoma is also said to run in some families whereupon gene changes that increase the risk of melanoma are passed from one generation to the next.
Although most moles never turn into a melanoma, according to cancer.org, some do. DNA changes can cause the cells of a mole to change into melanoma cells. Though, it’s still not known why some moles become cancer or why having many moles or unusual moles increases a person’s risk of getting melanoma, researchers are working diligently to find out.
Moles are also called nevi. These are groups of normal appearing cells of melanocytic origin in the dermis (skin). They are harmless brown spots on the skin. Melanoma usually looks different from ordinary moles. Take note that the first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape, or color of a mole.
Chances of recovery are generally good when found early, however, it can grow into the skin, reaching the blood vessels and lymphatics, and can spread within the body to various organs and become fatal.
So, let us discuss what you should be looking for in order to avoid this life threatening cancer:
First, there is an ABC rule, or rather ABCDE guide to the usual signs of melanoma. Be sure to discuss any new spots with your doctor right away…
A – Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other. Healthy moles are often symmetrical, which means they are equally sized – both sides would match if folded in half.
B – Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred. They can also feel raised to the touch and color may run into the surrounding tissues. Healthy moles have a defined border around the outside circumference.
C – Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, sometimes patches of pink, red, white or blue.
D – Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
E – Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color. Evolving Moles have inconsistencies. If it transitions in color, shape, height or surface texture – it may be dangerous or unhealthy and should be inspected by a medical professional. Take further note that when melanoma develops in an existing mole, the texture of the mole may change and become hard or lumpy. It is stated that although the skin may feel different and may itch, ooze or bleed, melanoma is not usually painful.
Accordingly, some melanomas do not fit the rules described above. Other warning signs are:
- A sore that does not heal
- Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
- Redness or a new swelling beyond the border
- Change in sensation – itchiness, tenderness or pain
- Change in the surface of a mole – scaliness, oozing, bleeding or the appearance of a bump or nodule
Doctors suggest self-examination of the skin. Self-examinations should be performed in front of a full-length mirror in a brightly lit room. It helps to have another person check the scalp and back of the neck. Cancer.net recommends these steps in a skin self-examination:
- Examine the front and back of the entire body in a mirror, then the right and left sides, with arms raised
- Bend the elbows and look carefully at the outer and inner forearms, upper arms (especially the hard-to-see back portion), and hands
- Look at the front, sides and back of the legs and feet, including the soles and the spaces between the toes
- Part the hair to lift it, and examine the back of the neck and scalp with a hand mirror
- Check the back, genital area, and buttocks with a hand mirror
Furthermore, you should talk with your doctor if you find any of the following:
- A growth on the skin that matches any feature of the ABCDE rule list
- New growth on the skin
- A suspicious change in an existing mole or spot
- An unusual sensation in a mole, such as itching or tingling
Any mole that causes pain or is tender to the touch should be considered dangerous, particularly if the mole exudes fluid or blood.
According to the Mayo Clinic, melanomas can also develop in areas of your body that have little or no exposure to the sun, such as the spaces between your toes and on your palms, soles, scalp or genitals. These are sometimes referred to as hidden melanomas because they occur in places most people wouldn’t think to check. Furthermore, when melanoma occurs in people with darker skin, it’s more likely to occur in a hidden area.
Hidden Melanomas include:
Melanoma Under A Nail – Acral lentiginous melanoma is a rare form of melanoma that can occur under a fingernail or toenail. It can also be found on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. It’s more common in African Americans and in other people with darker skin pigment.
Melanoma in The Mouth, Digestive Tract, Urinary Tract or Vagina – Mucosal melanoma develops in the mucous membrane that lines the nose, mouth, esophagus, anus, urinary tract and vagina. Mucosal melanomas are especially difficult to detect because they can easily be mistaken for other far more common conditions.
Melanoma in The Eye – Eye melanoma, also called ocular melanoma, most often occurs in the uvea – the layer beneath the white of the eye (sclera). An eye melanoma may cause vision changes and may be diagnosed during an eye exam.
If you have melanoma and it has spread to other areas, you may have the following symptoms:
- Hardened lumps under your skin
- Swollen or painful lymph nodes
- Trouble breathing, or a cough that doesn’t go away
- Swelling of your liver (under your lower right ribs) or loss of appetite
- Bone pain, or less often, broken bones
- Headaches, seizures or weakness or numbness in your arms or legs
- Weight Loss
WebMD suggests a list of questions you can ask your doctor before running tests:
- Why did you come in?
- What have you noticed, and when?
- How are you feeling?
- Have you been diagnosed with melanoma before?
- How was it treated?
- Has anyone in your family had melanoma?
- Have you ever used a tanning bed?
- How many times have you had a sunburn?
- Do you wear sunscreen? When? And what SPF?
Finally, the most effective method of sun care is prevention. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 means you can stay in the sun 30 times longer than without SPF. It is however recommended to reapply every two hours. It is noted that makeup containing SPF will not properly protect you from UV rays. Doctors suggest to smooth on a layer of SPF 30 moisturizer as a base before applying foundation for a healthy, protected glow.
These doctors recommend some sun protection tips:
- The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so try to limit your time outdoors during those hours. If you must be outside during that time, be sure to use proper protection.
- Wear protective clothing such as sunglasses with 100% UV ray protection, wide-brimmed hats and clothes containing SPF.
- When at the beach, bring an umbrella for shade.
- Always wear sunscreen or SPF 30 or higher, and be sure to apply 30 minutes before exposing yourself to the sun.
If you do get a sunburn – one doctor suggests dressing burned skin with aloe straight from the plant. Also, lavender oil has anti-inflammatory properties… it may help with the pain of your burn.
The point here is, don’t get a burn… it’s dangerous. Follow your family history to find out if genetics are another factor in your chances of getting melanoma. Otherwise, follow these recommendations and guidelines to healthy, happy skin.