Melanoma & Skin Pigmentation

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Melanomas are dangerous pigmented areas of skin and are a form of skin cancer. When pigmented skin cells change and divide uncontrollably then a melanoma occurs. Melanomas can form from a previous mole on your skin or as a new area of pigmentation on the skin. If you notice any changes in your own moles such as changes in size, changes in its border or if it begins to bleed, you must visit your doctor.

What does a melanoma look like?

Usually melanomas are irregularly shaped and have bumpy areas on the skin. Some may develop just beneath the skin and feel like a hard lump. They can range in colour from dark brown or black to red or blue and can also be flesh coloured. It is also possible for a melanoma on the skin to bleed. It is therefore difficult to recognise a melanoma just by looking at it, and so any suspicious pigmented areas of skin should be examined by your doctor.

Where are melanomas found?

Almost all melanomas are located on the skin as this is where most pigmented skin cells are found. This kind of melanoma is called a ‘cutaneous melanoma’. Of melanomas found on the skin, most are found on the head and neck or on the chest, abdomen and back, with the rest being found on the arms and legs.  Other places melanomas can be found are inside the mouth and nose or around the anus. They can also develop in the eye.

Once a melanoma has developed it can spread to internal organs or lymph nodes. This can make the original site of the melanoma hard to find. Once a melanoma has spread it is much more dangerous.

Who can get a melanoma?

Most people diagnosed with melanomas are aged 40-60 years but it is possible for a melanoma to occur at any age. They are most common in people with white skin, much less common in African Americans, and very rare in the Japanese. There is a very strong link between the risk of developing a melanoma and how much you have been exposed to the sun, and this is especially the case if you have white skin. Being close to the equator will therefore increase the risk of you developing a melanoma. Australians have the highest risk of developing melanoma and it is thought that around 1 in every 60 people will be affected in this country.

There is a type of melanoma which is caused by your genes, and not sun exposure, and this causes around a tenth of all melanoma cases.

Why is melanoma dangerous?

Melanomas that are found only skin and haven’t spread to anywhere else in the body can be easily removed by surgery. However, it is possible that some of the cancerous melanoma cells will break off and spread around the body. This is what causes the real damage and makes melanomas so dangerous.

Cancerous melanomas account for only a small percentage of all skin cancers, but they cause almost all skin cancer deaths. In 2011, melanoma is the sixth cause of cancer related deaths in men and the seventh in women. In women aged 25-30, melanoma is the most common cause of cancer to cause death. Melanoma is also increasing at a much higher rate than any other cancer.

Melanomas are much easier to detect now than they were in the past and so the death rate is lower. Since melanomas are detected much earlier it means that they can be treated without delay and patients are much more likely to be cured. Better surgical equipment is also becoming available all the time which makes melanomas much easier to remove.

Visiting your doctor

If you notice a change in a skin mole or find a new one, you should consider the following points:

  • If your lesion is pigmented, this is usually brown or black, then it is more likely to be dangerous.
  • Your doctor should be able to tell you what your lesion is just by looking at it.
  • If your doctor cannot diagnose it you should see a dermatologist who is specialised to deal with skin problems.
  • If your lesion still cannot be diagnosed then tests should be done to find out what it is.
  • Some types of skin cancer, including melanomas, have a genetic component. If any of your close relatives have had skin cancer then you should make sure that you get checked regularly.

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