As the most serious and deadly types of skin cancer, melanoma claims one life every hour, or 10,000 lives every year. For young people, melanoma is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths and also one the most commonly diagnosed cancers. However, this cancer doesn’t just target people under the age of thirty; older people are also quite vulnerable to this deadly disease. If you or somebody you love has a history of skin cancer in their family, then please keep reading to learn more about how to quickly identify melanoma to better improve your chances of survival.
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Causes of Melanoma
There is no one singular trigger for melanoma, but there are some factors that can increase your risk of developing it. For instance, genetics play a huge role in determining if you will get this type of skin cancer.
However, researchers and doctors agree that the number one cause of melanoma is ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. This can come from sunlight outdoors, or it can come from tanning beds. Despite the popular misconception that tanning beds are “safer” than natural sunlight, you are just as likely to get skin cancer from using a tanning bed.
Using tanning bed increases your risk of skin cancer eight-fold, and people who have had at least one severe sunburn (and five regular sunburns) as a child double their risk of melanoma later in life.
People who are more likely to get melanoma include:
- People who have gotten at least one sunburn when younger.
- People who are out in the sunlight often.
- People who have fair skin, hair, and eyes.
- People who have family members who have had melanoma.
- People who take certain medications that can increase their risk.
- People who have had other types of cancer (such as breast or colon cancer).
If you fall within the category of people who are at elevated risk of developing melanoma, you must take extra precautions to protect yourself from this type of skin cancer. Regular skin checks, at least every three to six months, can save your life.
You can reduce your risk of melanoma by:
- Using broad-spectrum sunblock (30 SPF or greater) when outdoors.
- Avoid sun exposure during peak risk hours (10:00 am – 4:00 pm).
- Wear loose, lightweight clothing when outdoors.
- Stay in the shade as much as possible when outside.
- Wear both a hat and UV-rated sunglasses when outdoors.
- Be extra careful in snowy or sandy regions (they can bounce light).
- Avoid tanning, either outdoors or in tanning beds.
Please remember that melanoma does not discriminate. Anyone can develop skin cancer, including children and people with dark skin. While fair people are more likely to get melanoma, darker skinned people can also get it. Nobody is immune to melanoma.
Melanoma can develop literally anywhere on your body, as well.
Even though it more often happens in places exposed to sunshine (such as your face, your shoulders, and your back), it can happen:
- On the soles of your feet.
- Underneath your fingernails.
- On your scalp.
- Inside your eyes.
Enlist the help of a loved one to help check your entire body thoroughly to help prevent this disease from happening to you.
Melanoma vs. Moles
While melanoma generally shows up where a mole is, sometimes it can arise spontaneously as a brand-new mole. That means that you need to not only check your existing moles for cancer, but you need to know your body well enough to know when a new mole has formed.
Are All Asymmetrical Moles Melanoma?
There are many misconceptions about moles and melanoma, but the reality is that not all asymmetrical or atypical moles automatically mean that you have cancer.
Knowing the difference between a normal mole and an atypical mole can help you quickly understand what type of mole you have and what your risk of melanoma is.
While early signs of melanoma do include asymmetry, occasionally it may simply mean that you have an atypical (dysplastic) mole. Atypical moles are usually larger than normal (typical) moles and can be a variety of colors and/or shapes.
Signs that you have an atypical mole are:
- Uneven borders.
- Larger than 5mm across.
- May be many colors (pink, black, or blue).
- May be flat or raised.
- Could have a scaly or pebbly texture.
While not all moles will turn into skin cancer, there is a specific type of moles that are at higher risk of becoming melanoma. These are called “lentigo maligna” and are considered an early stage of melanoma.
Also called “melanoma in-situ”, lentigo maligna is normally found on the outer layers of the skin (the “epidermis”) and grows slowly for anywhere between 5 to 20 years. Lentigo maligna melanoma occurs when the cancerous cells of the lentigo maligna move deeper into the skin. While lentigo maligna is slow growing, lentigo maligna melanoma can be aggressive and fast-moving.
Signs of lentigo maligna are:
- Larger than 6mm across.
- Occurs on the face or neck.
- Smooth surface.
- Irregular border.
- Brown, pink, red, white, or red color.
If you have lentigo maligna, your chances of it becoming melanoma are extremely high. This type of melanoma can return, so it’s important to stay on top of skin checks. If your dermatologist determines that you have it, they may order a biopsy to determine if it has cancerous cells.
They may also check its stage to see how deep it has moved into your skin. Finally, they will want to remove it either through surgery or radiation. Read more about melanoma treatment options here. Catching lentigo maligna melanoma early is key to survival, as it can rapidly spread and attack other organs such as your lymph nodes or other organs.
Is It a Severely Atypical Mole or is It Melanoma?
The appearance of an atypical mole includes having a larger size, unusual color or texture, and uneven borders. But how can you tell a severely atypical mole from malignant melanoma?
There are five major clues you can use to identify your moles and tell if they are just atypical or if they are in the process of turning into a malignant melanoma.
These 5 clues are your ABCDEs:
- Asymmetry: Is your mole asymmetrical? If you drew a line down the middle of your mole and held it up to a mirror, would both sides match each other?
- Borders: Does your mole have smooth, even, regular borders? Are the borders irregular or “feathered” or seem like they’re blurry or bleeding into the surrounding skin?
- Color: What is the color of your mole? Is it tan or brown, or is it red, white, blue, black, or grey? Is it all one color or does it have multiple colors blended throughout it?
- Diameter: How wide across is your mole? Is it less than 5mm across (about the width of a pencil eraser) or is it larger than a half inch across?
- Evolution: Has your mole changed in appearance in any way, shape, or form? Has it grown larger or smaller, or has it changed color or shape?
Normal, healthy moles do not weep, ooze, or bleed. In addition to the above diagnostic criteria, please monitor your mole for any itching, scaling, or crusting. If it becomes hard, lumpy, or even if it shrinks in size, please contact your dermatologist right away. All changes to the appearance of your mole should be treated like an emergency and reported to your doctor immediately.
Having the presence of moles on your body does not automatically mean that you will develop melanoma. The average person has anywhere between ten and forty moles on their body at any given time. However, having more than five atypical moles, more than fifty common moles, or having a family history of melanoma does significantly increase your risk of developing this deadly type of skin cancer. Click here for more facts about the signs of melanoma.
Overview of Melanoma in Pictures
Knowing how melanoma looks when compared to a healthy mole can help you quickly identify this type of skin cancer.
Remember that benign (typical and common moles) are:
- Smaller than 5mm across.
- Smooth, even borders.
- Round or oval in shape.
- Even in color (tan, pink, or brown).
- Not crusty or scaly.
Unlike common moles, melanoma is quite different in appearance.
Use these pictures as a guideline for identifying melanoma, but don’t forget that not all melanoma is going to fit into these criteria. Each one may appear different, which is why you must schedule an appointment with your dermatologist if you encounter a suspicious spot on your skin.
- Note how the edges are asymmetrical on this melanoma:
- This melanoma has jagged, uneven borders:
- The uneven colors of this mole give away the fact that its melanoma:
- The large size of this melanoma is proof that it’s cancerous:
- If the mole changes in appearance like this one, then it’s likely melanoma:
- Melanoma can also occur in the eyes:
- Even your fingernails and toenails can form melanoma:
- Melanoma can occur in areas that do not get UV exposure:
- Melanoma can also form on the scalp:
Natural variance in shape, color, and appearance means that your melanoma may not look like one of these pictures. If you suspect you have a mole that looks like any of these, seek prompt medical intervention. For more information about melanoma symptoms, click here.
Moles that Can Develop into Malignant Melanoma
While some types of moles are more likely than others to turn into melanoma, please know that all types of moles are at risk of becoming melanoma. Even your common mole can become cancerous, which is why vigilant monitoring and protection of your skin is so important.
One type of mole is more likely above all others to become cancerous. That is a “congenital melanocytic nevus” and occurs in 1% of all infants. This type of mole is present at birth.
The larger your congenital melanocytic nevus is the higher your risk of melanoma. Smaller nevi are less likely to become cancerous compared to a larger variety such as the “bathing trunk nevi.” The lifetime risk of this mole becoming melanoma is up to 10%.
Sometimes a doctor will advise removal of this mole to help prevent cancer from forming. Other times, they may decide to monitor it for changes. Regardless, having this type of mole does greatly increase your chances of developing melanoma.
In as little as six weeks, melanoma can go from harmless to lethal. This is why routine skin checks and regular appointments with your dermatologist are so critical. If you have a family history of melanoma or happen to fall into a demographic that is at elevated risk of getting this type of cancer, please do not take chances with your health. Staying one step ahead of skin cancer can literally make the difference between life and death for you or somebody you love.
You can find further details of Types of moles here.