Melanoma, known less commonly as “black mole cancer” is the name given to the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Although it is easy to diagnose and treatable, if not caught in time it can quickly spread throughout the body. Once this occurs it becomes quite difficult to treat.
What causes melanomas?
Sunlight is thought to be the most important cause of melanoma. There has been an alarming increase in the number of new cases of each year, more so than any other cancer. This may be a result of the depletion of the ozone layer.
The ozone is that part of the atmosphere that blocks ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light (a fraction of sunlight which penetrates clouds) is thought to be a major cause of melanoma. It is estimated that one person in 100 in the United States will develop melanoma during their lifetime.
Although the number of new cases (per 1,000 people) is higher in all three counties in Delaware compared to the national average, the highest rate is in Sussex county. This is thought to be related to the increased occupational and recreational sun exposure in Sussex county residents. In Delaware these statistics are higher for both white males and females.
Melanoma is seen mainly not in outdoor workers, but in indoor professionals. This is considered to be due to the fact that indoor workers get bursts of sunlight on weekends and holidays. It is thought that these short bursts of sunlight are responsible for the development of this cancer.
People who are light in skin tone, fair hair, and who have a family member who has had a melanoma need to be particularly careful and should have a complete skin exam each year. A history of melanoma in the family leads to a greater chance of developing a melanoma. The person at greatest risk is the light-skinned, indoor worker who is exposed to sunlight in doses typically on weekends or holidays.
What do they look like?
Melanoma in its early stages looks like a mole, which is a harmless skin growth that may be flat or protruding. They vary in color from pinkish flesh tones to dark brown or black as you see here on this page.
Every one of us has moles; some of us have more than others. The number of moles you have depends on your genes and the amount of sun exposure you get during childhood. Moles sometimes appear in “crops,” especially during the early teens. Rarely, they will become cancerous. If this occurs, the cancer is called a melanoma, as opposed to the non-melanoma types such as squamous cell carcinoma, which you can read about on another pages of this site.
To help distinguish moles from melanomas, dermatologists have developed criteria known as the ABCD test: “A” stands for asymmetry, “B” stands for border, “C” stands for color, and “D” stands for diameter. If you have a mole that is asymmetrical (when you look at the mole, the two halves do not look the same), the border is irregular and not perfectly round, the color is many different shades, and the diameter is larger than 1/4 of an inch, then you should see your doctor.
Also, if you notice a mole is marching out of step with your other moles (changing more than your other moles), it needs to be checked. It’s interesting to note that in men, melanoma most commonly occurs on the upper back, and in women it is more common on the legs.
Prevention & Treatment
A person can avoid getting melanoma by avoiding sunlight and wearing a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher while in the sun. People who work indoors should be especially careful. If you work indoors and only get bursts of sunlight on vacations and weekends, it is very important to wear sunscreen of SPF 15 or more.
Melanomas are usually treated by surgical removal. After it is removed the cancer is examined under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist will measure the thickness of the melanoma. The earlier a melanoma is removed, the thinner it is and the greater the chance for a cure. The longer a melanoma stays on your body, the thicker it gets and the greater the risk of death, even if it is cut out.
To reduce the risk of dying from melanoma, you need preventive medicine. Aim your efforts at risk reduction measures such as avoiding exposure to sunlight, especially between 10 am and 2 p.m., and checking your moles once a month to see if any are changing more than your other moles.
The skin is unique because it is one of the few organs we can see. Close visual inspection of your skin once a month, avoidance of sunlight, and the regular use of sunscreen can help prevent death from melanoma.