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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, which arises from the pigment cells (melanocytes) in the skin. In melanoma skin cancer the melanocytes start to multiply excessively and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body (metastasise). This risk of spread is why melanoma is regarded as a more serious type of skin cancer.

What causes melanoma?

The most important cause of melanoma is exposure to too much ultraviolet light. The use of artificial sources of ultraviolet light, such as sun-beds, also increases the risk. Melanocytes make a brown/black pigment (known as melanin), and often the first sign of a melanoma developing is a previous mole changing in colour or a new pigmented lesion developing. Most frequently there is darkening in colour but occasionally there is loss of pigmentation with pale areas developing. These colour changes are said to give it a ‘variegated’ appearance.

Diagnosis and treatment

The initial treatment for a suspected melanoma is to remove it (excise) and to send it to the pathologist in order to determine the diagnosis. When the lesion is first removed, it is usually done along with a narrow margin of normal looking surrounding skin. If a diagnosis of melanoma is confirmed , a second procedure will be required to remove more normal skin from around the scar. This second procedure is to reduce the risk of the melanoma coming back.

How does melanoma develop?

Melanocytes produce a pigment in the skin called melanin, and they’re responsible for the colour of our skin. Melanoma develops when melanocytes begin to grow and divide more quickly than they would normally. This usually results in them spreading into surface layers across the skin and the growth can get out of control.When this happens, they typically look like unusual moles or noticeably darker spots on your skin. If you spot this, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Does early treatment help?

Early treatment of melanoma is very important. If it’s left to develop further, the cells might grow deeper into layers of your skin and cause significant health issues. The layers of your skin contain tiny blood and lymphatic vessels, and if the melanoma cells get into either of these vessels, they can travel to other parts of your body.If the melanoma you have is thin or at its very early stages, it is unlikely to spread to your lymphatic or blood vessels and can be cured with surgery.

The 4 stages of melanoma

It’s important to understand how melanoma can develop, because it travels through several stages - each of which significantly increases the health risks.

When the term ‘staging’ is used in relation to cancer, it refers to the size of the cancer and whether or not it has spread. If doctors can identify the stage of your cancer, they’ll be able to decide what treatment will be best for you.

Here are the stages of melanoma:

  • The earliest stage of melanoma is referred to as ‘in situ’, and means the cells are only in the top layer of your skin (known as epidermis). At this stage, the cells haven’t spread to your lower layers of skin, otherwise known as the dermis.
  • This is when the melanoma is only in the skin and hasn’t spread to any other part of your body.
  • Stage three is when the melanoma has entered a lumpy vessel but is yet to spread anywhere else in your body.
  • The final stage is when the melanoma spreads to distant areas of your skin and sometimes into other organs, such as your brain, lung or liver. This stage is referred to as metastatic melanoma.

Doctors use a the Breslow thickness measurement to ascertain how deep your melanoma is.

If you’re at all unsure about anything on your body that looks unusual, we recommend seeking professional advice.

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