Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make pigment which color the skin. Melanoma is the most serious form of the disease, responsible for 75% of the deaths caused by skin cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 48,000 people die from melanoma around the world annually.
Melanoma Signs & Symptoms
The most obvious symptom of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, or texture of an existing mole or the appearance of a new lesion on the skin. Melanomas can appear anywhere on the body, and should be examined by a dermatologist right away. Metastatic melanoma, or a mass of abnormal cells which spread, may also cause common flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or fatigue.
Visual diagnosis is the most common method used by medical professionals. The mnemonic “ABCDE” is sometimes used to classify the various levels of symptoms in a malignant mass:
- A: Asymmetrical skin lesion
- B: Border of the lesion is irregular
- C: Colors on lesion (multiple)
- D: Diameter—moles greater than 6 mm are more likely to be melanomas
- E: Enlarging or evolving lesion
Depending on the appearance and whether or not the lesion has metastasized, doctors will prescribe one or a combination of the following treatment methods:
- Surgery (preferred): When possible, the entire mass is removed
- Photodynamic therapy: In this treatment, medication and a thin laser are injected to kill malignant cells.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment relies on the injection of a laboratory-produced protein that attaches itself to various cells in the body, including cancer cells. Immunotherapy can be injected by itself or in conjunction withmedication.
If detected and treated early, patients with melanoma can expect a 5-year survival rate of 95%. Patients with an advanced stage of the disease can anticipate a 5-year survival rate of less than 60%. The malignant cells spread via lymph nodes or glands and are much more difficult to treat. Patients who have been successfully treated for melanoma need to be particularly vigilant about following their doctors’ follow-up instructions to prevent a recurrence of the disease.