Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, which forms from melanocytes, the cells that produce the dark pigment, melanin, which is responsible for the color of skin. These cells predominantly occur in skin, but they can also be found in other parts of the body, including the bowel and the eye. Melanoma can originate in any part of the body that contains melanocytes.
Melanoma is particularly common among Caucasians, especially northern and northwestern Europeans, living in sunny climates. There are higher rates of melanoma in Oceania, North America, Europe, Southern Africa, and Latin America. 420 Million people worldwide have a high risk of getting melanoma.
This geographic pattern reflects the primary cause of skin cancers i.e. exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) in conjunction with the amount of skin pigmentation in the population.
Melanoma is less common than other skin cancers. However, it is much more dangerous if not found in the early stages. It causes the majority (75%) of deaths related to skin cancer. Globally, in 2012, melanoma occurred in 232,000 people and resulted in 55,000 deaths. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world.
The signs of melanoma are atypical moles. That is why it is so important to get to know the skin very well and to recognize any changes in the moles on the body. People who do self-exams and dermatologists look for the moles that are different by the ABCDE signs – Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter and Evolving.
The most common site for atypical moles are women’s legs and men’s backs. 60% of melanomas occur because of a new mole, while 40% are the result of a mole that has changed.
The detection and diagnosis of melanoma is still done manually with the recommendation that every person should know their own skin and check it once a month. Dermatologists do the same check manually which is time consuming and inaccurate.
Once an atypical mole is found, a skin biopsy is performed to confirm the diagnosis; in some cases, biopsies of areas other than the skin may be needed. For example, if melanoma has already been diagnosed on the skin, nearby lymph nodes may be biopsied to see if the cancer has spread to them.
The treatment of melanoma includes surgical removal of the tumor. If melanoma is diagnosed in an early stage, while it is still small and thin, and if it is completely removed, then the chances of a cure is high.
The likelihood that the melanoma will come back or spread depends on how deeply it has gone into the layers of the skin. For melanomas that come back or spread, treatments include chemotherapy and immunotherapy, or radiation therapy. The five-year survival rate in the United States is as high as 91%.