Skin cancer, which is termed as melanoma, is a common type of cancer, especially in the United States. In fact, it is the fifth most common form of cancer.
The probable reason is that white Americans have less melanin or skin-coloring pigment that protect the skin from UV rays of the sun and thus they are at a higher risk of developing melanoma. But African Americans and people with dark skin are also likely to develop the disease.
The reason why melanoma develops is melanocytes or skin cells—which are divided and grow in a controlled manner under normal circumstances—undergo a change in their DNA due to unknown abnormal conditions and grow in an uncontrolled manner. The old cells on the skin do not make way for new cells and form a mass of cells which leads to the formation of melanoma cancer.
The symptoms usually consist of unusual or irregular moles or unusual pigmentation on the skin.
Diagnosis of Melanoma
If diagnosed early, melanoma can be completely cured. Before the diagnosis, a screening can be done regularly by self-examining at home by keeping a track of all the moles, skin marks, freckles, any changes in their shapes, sizes or appearance of new moles and marks. A doctor should also carry out regular screenings.
Apart from regular screenings, diagnosis for melanoma includes:
A normal examination of the skin is done but is not an accurate form of diagnosis, therefore a biopsy is a must where all or part of the suspected growth or mole is removed and examined in a laboratory. The biopsy procedure used could be
- a punch biopsy where a circular blade is used to make a small hole around a suspicious mole and the skin is examined;
- an excisional biopsy where the entire suspected mole and part of the normal skin around it is removed;
- an incisional biopsy where the most irregular part of the suspected growth or mole is removed and examined.
If melanoma is diagnosed, the next step is to diagnose the stage of the disease. This is carried out by first checking the thickness of melanoma by examining it under a microscope using a micrometer. Further, a sentinel node biopsy is carried out to check how much the disease has spread. In the procedure, surrounding lymph nodes are checked for the spread of melanoma via a colored dye.
Treatment of Melanoma
Early stage melanoma is treated by a biopsy itself where a doctor removes the melanoma and a thin layer of surrounding skin. This treatment is sufficient to address the problem.
For melanoma that has spread beyond the skin, doctors may carry out a surgery to remove lymph nodes that are affected. Chemotherapy can also be carried out to destroy the cells as well as radiation therapy where high powered energy rays or beams are used to destroy the affected cells. Biological therapy is also used to increase the body’s immunity to fight the disease, such as interferon, interleukin-2 etc. Targeted therapy is also used to target specific vulnerabilities of the cancer cells via medication.
Some of these treatments may have side effects and the treatment must be selected as per the spread of the disease and your doctor’s recommendations.