It is the most life-threatening type of skin cancer. It forms in melanocytes, which are the skin cells that produce pigment known as melanin.
While it is commonly found in parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, it’s also the only form of skin cancer that can occur in parts of the body that are typically out of the sun’s reach, such as the bottoms of the feet.
Fortunately, it can be cured when it is found early. That’s why it’s important to seek care from a skin cancer expert at the first sign of an unusual change to your skin.
Learn more about melanoma below or call 410-248-8310 to find a MedStar Health skin cancer specialist in Baltimore.
There are different kinds of melanoma that vary in severity, size, and location. It could take on any of the following characteristics:
- Superficial spreading melanoma appears as a smooth shape with uneven borders and can be bluish or brownish.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma typically looks like a flat, brown spot on the arms, face, and neck of older adults.
- Nodular melanoma is bumpy and varies in color, from black, blue, red, or colorless.
- Acral lentiginous melanoma is found on the bottom of the feet or palms of the hands.
Knowing what to look for can help you and your doctor to detect melanoma early when it is more easily curable. Melanoma most commonly appears in an existing mole or suddenly appears as a new spot that looks like a mole. We use the “ABCDEs of melanoma” to observe changes in moles that could be signs of this cancer.
Be sure to talk to your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following characteristics to a mole:
- Asymmetry - Different shape on one side compared to the other
- Borders - Uneven edges
- Color - Different shades of light or dark brown, black, red, or white
- Diameter - Growing size
- Evolving - Change to size or color
While fair-skinned people are more likely to get this type of skin cancer, people of all skin tones are affected. The following risk factors can increase your chances of developing it:
- Excessive sun exposure
- Exposure to UV radiation
- Family history of cancer, especially melanoma
- Multiple blistering sunburns
- Use of sunlamps and tanning beds
- Fair complexion
- History of basal cell and squamous cell
- History of actinic keratoses (rash of pre-cancerous scaly or crusty bumps)
The best way to protect yourself is to be proactive in caring for your skin. Consider taking the following preventative measures to minimize your risk.
Protect your skin. Protect your skin from the sun’s intense rays by following these tips:
- Dress in protective clothing
- Avoid tanning beds
- Stay out of the sun when it’s strongest in the middle of the day.
- Wear and reapply sunscreen
- Wear a wide-brim hat
Perform a self-exam. In addition to protecting your skin from the sun and ultraviolet (UV) rays, a monthly skin cancer self-exam can help you detect changes in your skin early.
During a skin cancer self-exam, you should use a full-length mirror to check your body for new growths or changes to moles in size, shape or color. If you notice anything suspicious, be sure to contact your melanoma specialist immediately.
See a dermatologist. If you’re at risk for skin cancer, it’s important to see a dermatologist once a year. A dermatologist specializes in skin, so they’ll be able to help you identify and evaluate new or changing growths that appear suspicious.
If your dermatologist or dermatologic oncologist finds something suspicious, they will investigate further to find out if it’s cancerous.
Your skin specialist may use a hand-held device called a dermatoscope or determine a biopsy is necessary to confirm whether or not an abnormal growth is cancerous. If you need a biopsy, a pathologist will examine the tissue sample collected to determine if it is cancerous and you can expect to have the results within five to seven days.
If cancer is found, your cancer diagnosis is reviewed by a tumor board where specialists across a variety of medical areas work together to determine the stage of cancer and the right treatment options based on your unique case.
Melanoma is much more aggressive than other types of skin cancer, so treatment is often more complex. If you are diagnosed, you can count on our experienced oncologists to provide a comprehensive treatment plan that focuses both on removing the cancer and preventing it from coming back in the future.
Your treatment plan will vary based on the size, location, and depth of your cancer. Most commonly, melanoma treatment includes a combination of the following:
Surgery: Surgery is typically the first step in treating melanoma, whether it’s in early or advanced stages. It involves removing the cancerous tumor, as well as surrounding tissue and affected lymph nodes when it has spread. For most people, this is enough to eliminate it.
Sentinel Node Evaluation: During a sentinel lymph node evaluation, a surgical oncologist will make an incision to identify and remove any signs of the cancer spreading to nearby lymph nodes. This ensures only affected lymph nodes are removed and it may minimize the need for a more complicated surgery.
Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy uses medication to stimulate your immune system to find and destroy cancerous cells. Our oncologists and researchers are early adopters in immunotherapy, as our Maryland Melanoma Center was one of the first in the region to offer immunomodulator viral therapy for melanoma.
Targeted Therapy: When cancer cells have certain mutations, targeted therapy uses special medications to stop cancer cells from multiplying. Your doctors may include this in your personalized treatment plan if mutations are found during genetic analysis of the cancer cells.
At MedStar Health, our fellowship-trained medical and surgical oncologists ensure you get a timely and accurate diagnosis, then treatment options designed for your specific circumstances.
Here you’ll find:
- Comprehensive and innovative therapy: We offer a full range of treatment options, including complex surgeries and targeted therapies for advanced melanoma.
- A multidisciplinary approach: Every case is presented at a tumor board where surgical, radiation, and medical oncologists, radiologists, specialists, therapists, and nurses thoroughly review your case and design a treatment plan that will work best for you.
- Clinical trials and research-backed solutions: Our doctors and researchers continue to improve how it is diagnosed and treated. We provide access to promising therapies not always available through other networks and centers. One study is looking at photodynamic therapy—making cancerous cells more sensitive to light, then killing them with a laser.
- Follow-up care: Unfortunately, melanoma can return to the same place even if cured, and patients are also at higher risk of developing other skin cancer. We’ll make sure you get regular checkups so we can minimize your risk of anything coming back.
- Reconstruction and Restoration: Our team includes top plastic surgeons, in case the cancer is located in a cosmetically sensitive area or requires the removal of a larger amount of skin and repair afterward.
It’s a good idea to gather a second opinion after you receive your initial diagnosis. A doctor specializing in melanoma can review your medical reports and test results which will help them to recommend treatment options. In some cases, a second opinion can offer additional detail about your cancer type, as well as treatment options that you didn’t know were possible. That’s why it’s never too late to get a second opinion, even if you already had treatment.
A second opinion may delay the start of your cancer treatment but only for a short time, which usually doesn’t pose a risk. Talk to your doctor about how much of a delay is okay for you, and consider the following as you seek a second opinion:
- Experience: How many patients are treated for melanoma cancer at the facility each year?
- Training: Are the physicians board-certified?
- Quality: Is the hospital properly accredited and consistently recognized for medical excellence?