Melanoma is a rare but life-threatening cancer that affects the pigment cells of the body. These pigment cells, called melanocytes, are most often associated with the skin. Men and Caucasians with heavy sun exposure are likeliest to be affected by melanoma. Melanoma in men usually occurs on the head, neck, or trunk. Woman are frequently affected on the arms or legs.
Melanoma appears as a blemish or lesion; either at the site of an existing mole, or as a new mark. Being familiar with your skin’s markings is the first step in early melanoma detection because it will help you notice skin changes more easily. Bleeding, itching, and changes in color or size of moles are all conditions that should be reported to a doctor for further testing.
To help recognize the symptoms of melanoma, a simple method exists: ABCDE
- A is for asymmetrical: One side of the mole or blemish doesn’t match the other.
- B refers to the border: Irregular or jagged borders are suspect.
- C is for color: Melanomas typically have two or more colors.
- D stands for diameter: Larger moles are more often associated with melanoma than smaller ones.
- E can refer to the evolution or elevation: Evolution is a change in feel or appearance of a mark. Elevation means the mark is raised.
It is important to note that some fair-skinned, fair haired people may be affected by melanoma but not have the typical symptoms. Amelanotic types present no color or mark on the skin and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Another notable type, usually diagnosed in older patients is lentigo melanoma. Lentigo melanomas are flat and look like a stain on the skin. In unusual cases like these, patients with family history or previous occurrence may choose to have yearly skin examinations with a specialized diagnostic tools. A dermatoscope is one such tool that illuminates the suspicious area so that the vascular structure and nearby skin involvement can be studied. Conversely, a condition called seborrheic keratosis can closely mimic melanoma and should also be examined using a dermatoscope.
Melanoma is commonly linked with skin that is exposed to sunlight, but the condition can also occur in other parts of the body that contain melanocytes. These locations include the palms, tips of fingers or toes. Mucosal melanoma affects the membranes that line the mouth, nose, vagina and bowel; making it harder to diagnose since the symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. Melanoma in the genital or urinary tract, for instance, can produce symptoms much like those of an infection or other cancers. In the bowel or intestinal tract, bleeding or hemorrhoid-type problems are symptoms of many other conditions as well as melanoma. In the mouth and nose, melanoma can cause ulcerations that look and feel like cold sores. A dentist usually examines the mouth in regular check-ups for suspicious lesions. Uveal melanoma develops in the eye and is usually diagnosed during eye exams.