Melanoma occurs when the melanocytes or melanin-producing cells begin to grow in an abnormal fashion. These cells typically grow in a controlled manner with newer cells pushing older cells toward the skin surface so they can fall off. With melanoma, the new skin cells grow out of control, potentially forming a cancerous cell mass with dangerous implications. It is not currently known what causes damage to skin cell DNA or how melanoma is caused as a result. It is thought that a combination of genetic and environmental factors causes the disease. Although not every melanoma is caused by ultraviolet light exposure.
There are a number of complications associated with untreated melanoma as well as the treatments for this cancer. Untreated melanoma can spread to other organs, causing deep tissue damage and potentially life-threatening harm. Treatments of serious or late-stage melanoma may cause fatigue, pain, hair loss, infection, scarring, diarrhea, nausea and constipation.
Melanoma can develop anywhere, though they most commonly appear in sun-exposed areas of the skin such as the face, back, arms and legs. The first signs of melanoma development include changes in an existing mole or the development of a new mole that is pigmented or looks unusual. Melanoma can also appear as normal, healthy skin. Unusual moles indicating the development of melanoma are typically asymmetrical, feature irregular borders and multiple colors or uneven color distribution, are larger than 1/4 and are evolving, meaning that the features are changing over time.
The best way to diagnose melanoma is by undergoing an extensive skin exam by a trained physician. They will conduct an inspection of your skin from head to toe looking for any signs of melanoma. If there is an area of skin that is suspected of being melanoma, the physician will utilize excision biopsy, punch biopsy or incision biopsy to remove a sample of the skin and test it for signs of cancer. If cancer is present, the physician will determine the stage of the cancer, indicating the extent of its spread. This will help determine the right treatment for the patient.
Physicians treat early stage melanoma with biopsy or surgery. For later stage melanomas, physicians utilize more extensive surgeries to remove affected lymph nodes, usually in combination with radiation therapy, chemotherapy and biological therapy. Biological therapy will boost the immune system so that the body can fight the cancer. Targeted therapy is also viable here, which involves using medications like Zelboraf or Vemurafenib to treat advanced melanoma that surgical options are not available for. There are also experimental treatments for melanoma including clinical trial products, new treatment combinations, vaccine treatments and targeted therapies that help to treat the cancer when traditional treatment forms such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy are not working.