In 2010, there were 68,130 new cases of melanoma in the U.S.. according to the National Cancer Institute, and 8,700 people died from the disease. We worship the sun, slathering tanning lotion all over our bodies and basking in it. When we can’t do that, we crawl into a tanning bed and get bronze artificially. Our vanity is killing us. Even if you have carefully practiced sun safety all summer, it’s important to continue being vigilant about your skin in fall, winter, and beyond.
Melanoma is one of the major cancer types for which new immune-based cancer treatments are currently in development. This article features information on melanoma and highlights the Cancer Research Institute’s role in working to bring effective immune-based cancer treatments to people with melanoma. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Although it makes up for only 5% of skin cancer cases, melanoma accounts for 77% of skin cancer-related deaths.
One of the world’s fastest-growing types of cancer, melanoma claims one life every hour. Although melanoma is often easier to detect in its earlier stages than most cancers, it is also more likely to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Metastasis represents the most significant cause of death from the disease. The 5-year survival rate for localized (stage I and II) melanoma is 98%; however, this drops to 15% in cases where cancer has metastasized to distant sites or organs.
In most cases, melanoma is easy to self-detect at an early stage while it is curable by simple surgical excision. Although the visual appearance of a skin lesion (a growth or mark) is often an indication of melanoma, you cannot always rely on this alone. You should also be aware of the history of your skin lesions—any changes that occur in them, as well the onset of any new ones. The only way to develop this awareness is by regular self-examination of your skin. In more advanced melanoma, the texture of the mole may change. The skin on the surface may break down and look scraped. It may become hard or lumpy. The surface may ooze or bleed, and sometimes the melanoma is itchy, tender, or painful.
Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size, or feel of an existing mole. Melanoma may also appear as a new mole. Thinking of “ABCDE” can help you remember what to look for:
- Asymmetry: The shape of one half does not match the other half.
- Border: that is irregular: The edges are often ragged, notched, or blurred in outline.
- Color: that is uneven: Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present.
- Diameter: There is a change in size, usually an increase. (larger than 6 millimeters or about 1/4 inch)
- Evolving: The mole has changed over the past few weeks or months
There are actually different types of melanoma. One type can first appear as a brown or black streak underneath a fingernail or toenail. Part of a routine cancer check-up should include a skin exam by a doctor or trained health professional. If there is any reason to suspect that you have a melanoma, your doctor will do more exams and tests to find out if it is melanoma or something else. You may be referred to a doctor who is an expert in skin diseases (a dermatologist). The doctor might use a special magnifying lens and light source held near the skin. Sometimes a thin layer of oil is put on the skin. A picture of the spot may be taken. They also often show that a spot on the skin is not cancer, so no more testing is needed.
Blood tests aren’t used to find melanoma, but some tests may be done before or during treatment, especially for more advanced melanomas. Doctors often test for blood levels of a substance called lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) before treatment. If the melanoma has spread to distant parts of the body, a higher than normal level of LDH is a sign that the cancer may be harder to treat. This affects the stage of the cancer. Some other tests of blood cell counts and blood chemistry levels may be done in a person who has advanced melanoma to see how well the bone marrow, liver, and kidneys are working during treatment.