Melanoma is a severe type of skin cancer that affects majorly all the melanin cells (melanocytes) that are found within the skin. These melanocytes produce a particular skin pigment known as melanin.
Melanin is the pigment responsible for your skin, and as such, this means that melanoma can occur on any part of the skin. Melanomas can also be found in other areas of your body such as your eyes, but in some rare cases, your intestines can also be seen to develop this particular kind of cancer.
Anyone is susceptible to suffering this disease; however, people who are below the age of 40 are at a higher risk of developing this cancer. This cancer can, however, be treated but only on the condition that it is detected early enough. If it isn’t caught early, then the disease can be a deadly one.
Causes of melanoma
Melanoma is said to occur when something weird goes on in the melanin-producing cells of your skin which is also known as the melanocytes. Under normal circumstances, the skin cells are produced and arranged in an orderly manner such that the healthy new cells which have just been produced pushes the old ones to the surface of the skin.
Here they are meant to eventually die and fall off thereby creating space for the formerly new cells to go up the surface and the cycle goes on and on.
However, when there is something wrong with the cells, it can cause something known as cell DNA damage, and as such cause, the newly developing cells to grow out of control and as a result, become cancerous in nature thereby forming a large mass of cancerous cells.
The exact cause of this damage or this type of cancer isn’t known. However, factors which contribute mainly to the development of this cancer has been discovered.
Largely, environmental factors, as well as genetic factors, contribute to the development but a particular factor which most doctors often speculated to be a significant factor is the exposure to UV light from the sun as well as from tanning salons.
However, there is a lot of controversy about this factor among most medical personnel and this is because there are other areas of the body that do not receive ultraviolet rays but yet develop this cancer, for example, the intestines and as such, this debunks the fact that the UV rays is the only factor at play here.
What exactly takes place within the skin
Usually, the normal moles within the skin develop a particular general colour such as brown, tan or black. Each mole-producing colour has a form of a border around it that tend to separate your skin from that pigment forming mole.
This moles are usually round or oval and are always about 6millimeters in diameter(very small). The number of moles in a person often ranges from about 10 moles to 45 moles. Majority of these moles don’t get to develop until about the age of 50 years and some change appearance over time while others may even die off as the person ages.
However, when there is an anomaly with this healthy formation, the person is said to be developing a melanoma. The person begins to develop abnormal looking moles, and this abnormality can be identified using the ABCDE approach.
A- Asymmetrical shape: Moles begin to become irregular in shape i.e they move from being the oval or round in shape to a completely different shape. Therefore, in order to know which cells are cancerous, most doctors look for those cells which aren’t oval. That will give them a better insight
B- Irregular borders: Remember how we said each of this moles have a designed and well-defined border around it that is meant to separate it from your skin, well, cancerous moles won’t have this defined borders.
Instead, they will have messed up borders which are irregular and not well defined, and this is a typical characteristic of a cancerous mole. Hence, doctors when trying to diagnose look out for this irregularity as well.
C- Colour change: Normal moles have a well-defined colour of either black, brown or tan colouration. However, abnormal moles will have any other colour apart from the three defined colours.
Some moles may even have one of the natural colours; however, the colour may seem to be not evenly distributed hence a part of the mole may be looking faded and the other part looking too prominent.
D- Diameter Irregularities: Normal moles have a diameter of 6 millimeters. However, abnormal moles will have different diameters. Some may be greater than the normal 6 millimeters while some may be lesser than the standard size. This is also an essential factor in determining which moles are cancerous and which aren’t.
E- Evolution: Over time some moles will evolve and become ruined or have a particular type of irregularity. Some may over time, change their colour or their size while others may even begin to develop new signs such as itchiness and severe bleeding which was not originally there.
With all these changes that have been listed above, some cancerous cells may not show any irregularity initially. Some may show a little bit of change while others will vary greatly. Therefore, it is imperative to know the differences very well in order to determine the abnormalities.
We have talked about some Melanomas which are very prominent; however, this doesn’t mean there aren’t others. In fact, there are some Melanomas which are known as hidden Melanomas.
These hidden Melanomas occur in places where you least expect and this is because these places have little or no exposure to direct Sunlight. Areas such as your scalp, the tiny spaces in between your palms and toes, the soles of your feet, and even sometimes your genitals could develop this Melanomas, and as such, they are termed to be hidden Melanomas.
For people with a darker shade of skin, it is possible to be seen with hidden Melanomas. In fact, it is quite common for them, and because they are places that people won’t think to check for this abnormalities, they often go unnoticed till they get into the late stages of cancer.
General places for hidden Melanomas include;
1. Melanoma found under the nails
Melanomas which are found under the nails are sporadic and quite dangerous. These Melanomas are mostly seen under the fingernails or the toenails. These cancers are generally called Acral Lentiginous Melanomas.
These type of Melanomas are also seen under the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. These type of cancers are mostly seen among people with darker pigmented skins or generally among the blacks.
2. Melanomas found in the mouth, the throat, the digestive tract, or the genitals such as the vagina
This type of melanoma is known as mucosal melanoma. It is so named because cancer develops within the mucous membrane that lines the mouth, the nose, the intestinal walls, the oesophagus, the vagina, the anal walls as well as the urinary tract.
These particular type of Melanomas are difficult to diagnose, and this is because there are other conditions that develop in the mucosal lining which are very common and it is quite easy to mix the signs up mistakenly.
3. Melanomas found within the eyes
These type of Melanomas are often referred to as ocular Melanomas. They are often seen to occur in the part of the eye known as the uvea. The uvea is the part of the eye that is found just beneath the sclera which is the white part of the eye.
This kind is easy to detect because they tend to cause vision changes and they can be easily diagnosed during a routine eye examination.
Melanomas can be seen anywhere in the body. However, they are often seen to occur in areas that have had direct exposure to sunlight. However, as earlier stated, they can be seen in hidden places too.
The first sign you may notice is the appearance of a mole like structure on your skin. Then you may also notice the development of an unusual looking skin pigment just around the place where you found the mole.
However, sometimes there are variances. Some melanomas don’t often start as a mole. Some start as a normal appearing skin before quickly progressing into something more.
Although everyone is susceptible to having this type of cancer, however, there are certain factors that can put you more at risk of developing this condition and these factors include:
1. Being light skinned
Being far or light skinned means that you don’t have so much melanin in your skin. One of the functions of melanin is to protect the skin from ultraviolet rays coming from the sun.
This means that the less melanin you have, the more susceptible you are to the harmful rays of the sun.
If you then have red hair, freckles, light coloured eyes or you do quickly get sunburned, then you are more at risk of developing this cancer. This doesn’t mean that people with dark skins don’t get melanoma, they actually do, but you are more likely to get it more than them.
2. Having a long history of sunburn
Having one sunburn is not bad in itself but the frequency of that occurring and it being severe blistering sunburns can pose problems for you by making you more susceptible to you developing skin Melanomas.
3. Excessive exposure to UV light
Daily exposure to sunlight increases your chances of being exposed to UV lights. However, this may not be considered harmful in itself, but if you are a frequent visitor to the tanning salon or to the tanning beds, then you are increasing your chances of developing many skin cancers as well as Melanomas.
4. Living at a higher elevation or very close to the equator
People who live higher than others or who are closer to the equator are often susceptible to skin cancers, and this is because where they are, the rays are much more direct with a higher concentration of UV rays than those who stay at who at a lower elevation or those who Starr at higher latitudes.
5. Having an increased number of moles or generally noticing unusual moles
The average amount of moles a person should have ranges from about 10-45 moles. Fifty moles is the highest number of moles a person must have no matter the circumstances.
However, having more moles is an indication that the patient has an increased risk of developing melanoma. Also if the moles present in your body presents with an unusual shape or diameter, it also indicates that there is a problem.
This condition is known medically as dysplastic nevi. In this condition, the moles are seen to be larger with irregular borders and with a mixture of colours as against the Normal ones.
6. Having a history of skin cancers or Melanomas
Just like other cancers, if you have a family history of Melanomas or other skin cancers, then you are at a higher risk of developing the condition as well. Mostly, if a close family relative has had this condition, then there are higher chances of you developing it as well.
7. Having an already weakened immune system
Having a disease that already weakens your immune system puts you up at a higher risk of developing several diseases as well as Melanomas. People who have also undergone organ transplants have an increased chance of developing skin cancers and as such is susceptible to Melanomas.
For every disease, there is a way to prevent it and to prevent Melanomas and other skin cancers; then you should do the following:
1. Avoid being in the sun urging the midday and this is because this is the position where the sun is hottest. For some people like those residing in North America, the sun is most scorching between 10am – 4pm.
To avoid this time, you can place your schedule in such a way that you will be indoors, probably at work or doing something that doesn’t involve you standing in the sun for an extended period.
When you avoid the sun when it is at its hottest, you are preventing your skin from being sunburned as well as you are preventing tans which have the tendency to damage your skin cells and make you susceptible to developing cancers.
2. If you are forced to go out in the sun, never forget your sunscreen. Although they don’t effectively filter out the harmful rays from the sun, however, they do play a significant role when it comes to sun protection.
3. Always cover your skin and leave the barest minimum to sunlight.
4. Avoid going for tanning in tanning salons. Also, avoid using tanning beds and lights. This is because they often emit UV rays which are harmful to your skin and eventually damage your cells, therefore, making you susceptible to skin cancers.
4. Know your skin well and also try to identify differences in it anytime you see it. Ensure also to visit a doctor if you notice something disturbing about your skin colouration. Remember, early detection is vital.
- Melanoma – Mayo Clinic