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Understanding melanoma

Understanding melanoma helps you to prevent it

It is important to understand how melanoma develops so you are aware of what you can do to minimize you chances of having it. Melanoma can grow quickly and spread to other parts of your body if left untreated. It can then become a very serious threat to your health.

If you have been diagnosed with melanoma, you may find it helpful to learn about melanoma. Understanding melanoma is the first step to taking control your journey.

So what is melanoma anyway?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that generally develops as a result of too much exposure to UV radiation. When detected early, melanoma can be entirely removed. In most cases, this will be the only treatment required. But if left undetected, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body, including vital organs.

There are two broad types of skin cancers; melanoma and non-melanoma. Squamous cell carcinoma and Basal cell carcinoma are two types of non-melanoma skin cancer. To learn more about these, follow the links below:

Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, but it is the more serious form, and it can be life threatening.

Melanoma develops in the skin’s pigment cells. These cells are called melanocytes. The purpose of melanocytes is to help protect our skin from harmful UV radiation. When melanocytes clump or group together, usually in childhood or adolescent years, they form a mole. Most moles are safe, but melanomas can look like moles or can be an unusual change in an existing mole.

Melanoma develops when the melanocytes in a mole start to grow in an unregulated way, either spreading on the surface or penetrating further down into the deeper layers of skin tissue.

Understanding MelanomaIn the past, most literature points to a deep black irregular shaped mole as a typical representation of melanoma, and this is what we believe we should be looking for. But this is only one of the many ways melanoma can appear. Research has come a long way, and we now know that melanoma can present in different ways and in a variety of colours, including a flesh coloured lump.  This is why we recommend that you go to a trained professional, such as your GP or a dermatologist, to get your skin screened for skin cancer.

Personal risk factors

Melanoma develops due to a combination of certain personal risk factors. You are at risk if you have one or a few of the following: 

  1. A history of sunburn, especially in childhood or adolescence.
  2. Lots of moles.
  3. Had previous skin cancer or melanoma.
  4. A family history of melanoma, or other skin cancers.
  5. High exposure to UV including from working outdoors, seeking a tan, arc welding or tanning beds.
  6. Fair skin that burns easily and does not tan.

It is important to know that melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, even in areas that receive little or no sun exposure e.g. inside the mouth or on the soles of your feet or under the hair on your head. In darker–skinned people, melanomas can develop under the fingernails or toenails, palms of the hands, or soles of the feet. It is a little known fact that Bob Marley died from melanoma that started under the toenail of his big toe.

Early detection is vital to stop melanoma developing. It is important to check your entire skin on a regular basis for new skin marks or changing moles. Book yourself an appointment with a GP or dermatologist to get it checked properly by a trained professional. In between appointments, get into the habit of checking yourself thoroughly.

If you notice anything new and unusual or a changing mole, make an appointment with your GP immediately.

What happens when melanoma starts to spread?

If you don’t catch melanoma in the early stages and have it removed, it can spread to other parts of your body via the blood or lymph system. The diagram below illustrates how undetected melanoma can spread:

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Stop melanoma from spreading

If a mole or skin lesion has been identified as being suspicious by your doctor, they will recommend you have it removed and sent to pathology for testing. Removing it is simple and can be performed by a GP or dermatologist in their rooms. There is no need to go to hospital for this. You will require some stitches from the excision.

Your doctor will receive the pathology report identifying whether the lesion has cancerous melanoma cells or not. If there are no cancer cells present, then your treatment is finished. However, it is still recommended that you continue with regular skin screenings.

If the pathology report comes backs identifying that melanoma cells are present, then you might require a further wider and deeper excision to remove some of the surrounding tissue to create a bigger clearance or margin around where the melanoma was located. It is called a wide local excision and will be done by a surgeon, under either a local or general anaesthetic.

A wide local excision means they will clear an area of normal looking skin and tissue beneath the skin surface where the mole had been to ensure all cancer cells have been removed. How much tissue that is removed depends on the thickenss of the melanoma. This bigger wound will need stitches, or if it a big excision, occasionally a skin graft will be required.

melanomaWA are currently updating our website to extend content in this area. If you would like further reading on this subject, telephone us on 9322 1908, or email us at admin@melanomawa.org.au, so that we can point you in the right direction.