Melanoma is one type of skin cancer. Although less common than other types of skin cancers, it tends to be more serious and deadly. Every year almost 10,000 Americans die from a malignant melanoma. Early diagnosis and proper medical treatment can drastically improve the outlook. However, many people do not realize that the abnormal skin growth is cancerous and may mistaken it for a mole, skin tag, blemish or some other skin lesion.
How To Spot Melanoma
Although a mole can become a melanoma, any persistent change in a portion of the skin can be a sign of a melanoma. This can include a blemish or mark on the skin. Initially there may not be any detectable change to the naked eye or sense of touch. However, it eventually becomes evident and can be seen and felt. Lesions that are uneven in shape, have irregular borders, patchy in color, larger than 6mm in diameter and changing need to be investigated immediately as these characteristics are highly typical of a melanoma.
There is a common misconception that melanomas only occur on the sun-exposed areas of the skin and only affect people with a lighter skin complexion who spend long hours in the sun. This is untrue. A melanoma can occur on the skin anywhere in the body, even in areas that are usually not exposed to sunlight. It can also affect any person, even those who ar not exposed to the sun for long hours or have a darker skin complexion.
However, it is important to note that sun exposure is a major risk factor for developing a melanoma and people with lighter compexions are generally at greater risk. This means that people who spend long hours in the sun, do not use sun protection and frequently suffer with sunburn are at a higher risk of developing melanoma. A family history of melanoma and a weak immune system can also increase the risk of developing melanoma.
What happens in a melanoma?
Melanomas arise from a specific type of skin cell known as melanocytes. These cells are responsible for producing the pigment melanin which gives skin its characteristic brown color. People with more melanin production have darker skin complexions and when melanin production is lower the skin complexion is lighter. The body regulates the number of melanocytes by replacing old, worn and dead cells with new cells. This regeneration occurs in an orderly way to prevent an overgrowth.
However, in a melanoma this orderly growth of melanocytes becomes disrupted. It is largely due to damage to the DNA in the melanocytes which regulate its replication. Ultraviolet light exposure can damage the DNA in these cells and lead to abnormal growth. While intense UV light may be the leading cause, genetics and environmental factors may also be responsible. There may also be other unknown factors that also play a role.
Read more on types of skin cancer.
Who gets a melanoma?
Any person of any race or age can develop a melanoma. Apart from the risk factors mentioned above, melanoma is more common in people who are:
- Caucasian (White)
- Age 50 years and older
- Female before age 50 and males after the age of 50
- Living in countries like Australia and New Zealand
However, this should detract from the fact that any person who has an unusual skin lesion, especially if it has characteristics of a melanoma, should seek immediate medical attention.
Read more on skin cancer prevention.
What does melanoma look like?
The following pictures show what a melanoma may look like. It is important that melanoma is diagnosed by a medical professional, and preferably by a dermatologist (skin specialist) after the appropriate investigation(s).
Take note of the brown to black appearance, uneven color, irregular shape and indistinct borders.
Characteristics of Melanoma
Despite the appearance of a melanoma, it may be difficult to differentiate it from other non-cancerous skin lesions like a mole. A melanoma can develop from a mole but can also develop from normal skin. The problem is that many people may mistakenly identify a melanoma as a mole or not detect cancerous signs in an existing mole until it is too late. Therefore it is important to know what a normal mole looks like in order to understand how a melanoma difers.
Moles are round to oval skin growths that are tan, brown or black in color. This color is usually uniform along the entire mole. It may occur anywhere in the body, either on its own as a single growth or as groups. Moles are usually less than 6mm (about ¼ inch) in diameter with clearly defined borders separating the mole from the surrounding skin. Most people will have many moles in adulthood and this is usually not a cause for concern.
However, a melanoma is serious and needs immediate medical attention. The following characteristics are helpful in differentiating lesions that may be melanomas. It is marked by five main features:
- Asymmetry – uneven shape
- Borders – irregular borders
- Color – patchy color
- Diameter – larger than 6mm
- Evolving – changing in color, size and shape
A melanoma, like a mole, can occur anywhere on the body. This includes areas that are not exposed to excessive sunlight.
Melanomas are asymmetrical meaning that one half of the lesions is not the same as the other half. This is in contrast to moles which are symmetrical, either round or oval in shape.
The border of a melanoma is irregular and not always well defined. Moles on the other hnd have clearly defined borders where it can be distinctly differentiated from surrounding skin.
A melanoma may not have a single evenly distributed color as is the case with a mole. Instead there may be several different colors or shades on the growth.
Larger than 6mm
Moles are usually smaller than 6mm (about ¼ inch) in diameter. Melanomas may also start as small growths but continue to grow in size. It can also start as a large growth.
Melanomas like other cancerous growths change over time. Moles are usually consistent in shape, size and color or change very slowly over years, if at all. Melanomas tend to change much faster. There may also be itching at the site and even bleeding when it is a melanoma.
Images sourced from atlasdermatologico.com.br