Now and then a patient will come to me wondering if an odd spot on their face or neck is cancerous. Nine times out of ten it’s just an age spot or a big freckle that has formed from being out in the sun too much without protection. Rarely, though, it does turn out to be a melanoma; a specific type of skin cancer that I’d like to talk to you about today, it’s warning signs and what can be done about it. Unlike many cancers, the good news is, if melanoma is caught early, it is almost 100% curable!
Facts of Melanoma
I’m not going to sugar coat it, melanoma is a deadly skin cancer that you need to be vigilant about, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer and/or are have increased exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds.
Statistically, melanoma is more prevalent in men, but researchers have recently found a link between melanoma and breast cancer. Though some men do get breast cancer, women are the usual targets of that disease. So, if you have, or have had, breast cancer, do get screened for melanoma as well. If melanoma is undiagnosed and untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body at which point it is difficult to treat and can be fatal.
Types of Melanoma
There are 4 basic types of melanoma. They are:
- 3 types of melanoma are in situ, in the top layer of the skin and sometimes become invasive, meaning they spread deeper and/or to other organs.
- 1 type of melanoma is found in the deeper levels of the skin to begin with. This type of melanoma is more dangerous as the likelihood of this type spreading to other tissues and organs is much greater.
Self-Examination: How To Recognize Possible Melanoma
Recently, researchers have come up with a better way to recognize a possible melanoma. It’s called “the ugly duckling” method. An ugly duckling is a mole or lesion on the skin that looks markedly different, or undergoes changes differently, from any other moles or spots you may have.
In the following set of illustrations from The Skin Cancer Foundation, ugly ducklings can be identified in the following 3 ways:
A. This spot is bigger, darker, and different in shape than anything else on the skin.
B. This spot is smaller, much lighter, much different color than anything else on the skin.
C. This spot occurs by itself. A lesion that appears where there were no other moles or spots previously warrants examination.
When To Do A Self-Exam:
Skin examinations should be done at least once a month, before or after you take a shower or bath, or before going to bed. It is important to do skin exams on a regular basis, particularly if you have a lot of moles or freckles to begin with. You want to know the character of everything on your skin so you will be aware if anything changes.
One good way to do regular exams is to trade them with your spouse or significant other. They do yours and you do theirs. As I tell my patients, keep a little notebook of the location and type of moles, spots, etc, that you already have on your skin and make notes about them if they seem to undergo color, size, or character changes, or if a different type of mole or spot suddenly appears. For instance, if a previously flat, brown mole starts to look black, raised, cracks and/or bleeds, these are important changes that require a professional exam by a dermatologist.
The following are general guidelines for all skin cancer screening:
- A spot that increases in size and appears tan, clear, brown or black.
- A mole, birthmark, other spot that changes color, character, size, and appears after the age of 21, especially if it is bigger than 6 mm.
- A skin spot that burns, itches, bleeds and/or does not heal within 3 weeks.
Be aware too that melanomas can also form in the mucous membranes/organs of your body such as your eyes, the intestine, mouth, digestive tract, urinary tract, vagina, and anal canal; any surface of your body covered with a thin layer of mucus. These melanomas are not amenable to self-exam and usually are not found until they cause specific symptoms that warrant an internal exam.
Other hidden melanomas may also be found on self-exam in the space between toes and fingers, soles of your feet, and fingernails. So, be sure to check all of these areas as well.
The prospect of having a melanoma can be a scary one. However, as I mentioned above, if detected early, the cure rate for melanoma is very high. As I tell my patients, regular physical exams are crucial to your general health. In addition, a specific dermatology exam should be done on a regular basis if you’re one of those people who naturally have many moles or birthmarks. Your dermatologist can track any suspicious looking moles or lesions and/or remove them before they even have a chance to become cancerous.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Natural Health News