The appearance of a new mole, or changes in the size, shape or appearance of existing moles can, on rare occasions, be a sign of a type of skin cancer called melanoma. So what exactly is melanoma, why does it happen and what can be done about it?
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is an aggressive type of skin cancer that, if left untreated, can spread rapidly to the lymphatic system and other organs of the body, such as the liver and the lungs.
Fortunately, melanoma is quite a rare form of cancer, with only around 13,000 cases each year in the UK. This compares to over 40,000 cases of bowel and lung cancer and over 50,000 cases of breast cancer per year. Many people assume that skin cancer comes with age, after many years of sun exposure, however Melanoma affects young people more than most other cancers.
Melanoma is the most prevalent cancer amongst 15-34 year olds, so its never too early to start regular mole screening for all members of your family.
Melanoma is also the one of the most deadly cancers, with over 2,000 deaths per year, accounting for the majority of skin cancer deaths. However, it is also one of the most easily, and successfully cured, as long as the cancer is identified early enough. With this in mind, the importance of regular mole screening and self checking cannot be overstated.
What causes melanoma?
Melanoma is a fault in the skin cells that makes them develop in an abnormal way. No one knows exactly what causes melanoma skin cancer, although there are a number of risk factors that have been identified. You are more likely to develop melanoma if you have:
- Pale skin that burns rather than tanning
- Ginger or blonde hair and blue eyes
- Many existing moles and freckles
- A family history of melanoma
- A medical condition that reduces your immune system, or you are taking drugs that suppress it
How is melanoma diagnosed?
Suspected melanomas are identified by observing differences in your existing moles, using the ABCDE system of comparison, or new moles that suddenly appear. If a mole is suspected of being cancerous, the diagnosis will be checked by taking a biopsy, in which some or all of the mole is removed and examined under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells.
It is important to remember that melanoma is a rare condition, and most moles that are biopsied will come up negative for cancer, however it is always best to have these moles checked to be sure.
How is melanoma treated?
If it is caught early, the standard treatment for melanoma skin cancer is the surgical removal of the cancerous cells. If all the cells are successfully removed, there is little chance that the cancer will return.
If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, then these too will need to be removed. You will also need close monitoring and further treatment to avoid the cancer returning. If the cancer has spread to other organs you may be offered other treatments such as chemotherapy.