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Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. However, when caught early, it is treatable and has a nearly 100 percent five-year survival rate.

While other nonmelanoma skin cancers usually remain localized, melanoma can spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain and/or bones.

Melanoma affects the skin cells that produce pigment in the skin. This pigment, known as melanin, protects skin cells from the sunlight.

The main cause of melanoma (and of other skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma) is overexposure to sunlight. However, it can also develop in some of the darkest places of the body, such as inside the mouth, though this occurs much less often.

Melanoma Treatment

At UM Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, our team of skin cancer specialists treats this serious form of skin cancer with an individualized treatment plan.

Treatment options are chosen based on the cancer's stage, location, type and aggressiveness as well as the patient's overall health and other conditions.

The three treatment options available include:

Surgery

Surgery is often the first line of treatment for melanoma. The surgeon will remove the primary lesion to ensure that no cancer cells are left behind. Occasionally, the surgeon may perform a lymph node biopsy by removing a lymph node and testing it for signs of cancer. If the lymph node is positive, the surgeon will also remove other lymph nodes.

Immunotherapy

An agent known as Interleukin II can stimulate the patient's body to fight the cancer. Although the percentage of people who respond to immunotherapy is only 10 percent, the cure rate is about six percent. Those patients who respond to the treatment have a very good chance of being cured, even if the disease is advanced.

Chemotherapy and Targeted Therapies

Usually reserved for treating more advanced cases, chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells.

Based upon DNA and molecular analyses, doctors now consider melanoma to be a group of four different diseases. Each has a different molecular biology, which is leading to the development of more targeted treatment options. These targeted therapies directly treat the disease and leave healthy tissue unharmed.

Who Is at Risk for Melanoma

Those most at risk for developing melanoma include people with

  • Family history of the disease
  • High amounts of sun exposure or to indoor tanning
  • A previous diagnosis of melanoma
  • A suppressed immune system, due to illness, such as HIV infection, or a kidney, heart or liver transplant
  • Fair skin that tends to burn
  • Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi), which are large moles that have irregular color and shape

The risk of developing melanoma also increases with age. Any individual who is older than 50 or 60 years of age should schedule regular appointments with his/her dermatologist. However, about half of people with melanoma are diagnosed when they are younger than 50.

Though a person of any race or ethnicity can develop melanoma, the rate of the disease is 20 times higher in white people than black people. However, because the disease's early warning signs are often missed, it is diagnosed in the advanced stages approximately three times more often in African-Americans than in Caucasians.

Diagnosing Melanoma

The earlier melanoma is detected the better the prognosis. For this reason, anyone at higher risk and everyone over 60 should be screened regularly.

At the University of Maryland Medical Center, our dermatology department screens patients for all types of skin cancer and examines and evaluates unusual or changing growths or lesions.

All moles and lesions will slowly change with time. Some will become larger or more pronounced after approximately 10 or 20 years. However, if the mole or lesion grows too fast, starts to bleed, ooze or itch, it often signals that something is wrong. These changes should be evaluated by a dermatologist immediately, as early diagnosis can lead to a cure.

Skin mapping is a modern diagnostic tool used by dermatologists to evaluate changes in a patient's skin over time.

Using a tool known as a dermoscope, our trained professionals take several close-up pictures of the skin. The dermoscope shines polarized light on the skin, which is absorbed back into the lens, not reflected by the skin as with a normal photograph, allowing dermatologists to see deep into the skin.

These close-up images, combined with the other photographs, are used to create a catalog for the patient that can be used by the dermatologist in the future to determine if there are any changes to the patient's skin.

For more information or to make an appointment with one of our melanoma specialists, call 667-214-1195.