The good weather has returned. This means that areas of our bodies, which have been covered with clothes for months, reappear. Some will notice a new or changed mole and seek medical attention. However, melanomas are often detected by coincidence in patients who see the dermatologist for something completely different. A patient might want to show a rash on the back while the dermatologist’s attention is drawn to a mole on the stomach.
It is important to check your moles every three months. Take off your clothes, stand in front of a mirror and look closely at your skin. If you see any changes in shape, color, size, symmetry, etc., you should consult your dermatologist. Finding and treating a melanoma in time can save your life.
What is a melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in cells known as melanocytes. It usually presents itself as a cancerous mole. It´s the most dangerous of the different types of skin cancer.
What causes melanoma?
Sun and genetics. Above all, the sunburns you get in childhood – hence the need to take good care of our children’s skin. As in other diseases, there is also a genetic predisposition. If someone in your immediate family (parents, siblings, children) has been diagnosed with melanoma, you should get an appointment with your dermatologist.
How does a melanoma develop?
In most cases, the cancer is emerging as a new mole on previously normal skin. Some 30% of times however, it will appear in a mole one has had for a long time. Be wary of any changes or new moles in adults.
How is the diagnosis made?
Your dermatologist will examine the skin with a dermatoscope, a special kind of loupe through which we can see the skin’s structures. If the dermatologist suspects that the mole has cancer, it is removed by a simple surgical procedure. Then a pathologist will examine it under a microscope to determine if it is a melanoma.
How is melanoma treated?
The main treatment is surgery. The melanoma plus a safety zone around it must be removed. The safety zone depends on how deep into the skin the cancer has grown (Breslow index). Depending on the depth, it might be necessary to perform an ultrasound scan of the nearby lymph nodes or a CT scan and sentinel node procedure. This is a test to find out if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread, the patient will be referred to an oncologist for medical treatment.
What’s the prognosis?
The prognosis depends on several things, but it is considered that a very thin melanoma (in situ) is cured with surgery alone. However, regular check-ups at the dermatologist is mandatory, seeing as having had one melanoma increases the risk of having more. In the case of thicker melanomas, the general rule is that the deeper into the skin the cancer has reached (the higher the Breslow index), the worse the prognosis.
How can you prevent melanomas?
It is very important to avoid sunburns at any age, but especially in childhood.
- Reduce exposure to direct sunlight. Children under 1 year of age should receive no direct sunlight at all.
- Stay in the shade from noon to 4pm. Avoid being at the beach during this time – not even under a parasol. The sand reflects the sun’s rays.
- Use sunscreen SPF 50 and apply it generously every 2 hours and after every dip in the sea or pool. Don´t forget your ears and nose!
- Wear hat or cap, sunglasses and clothing.
- Don’t use sunbeds.
Check your moles every 3 months. If you see any changes, consult your dermatologist. Even if you don´t find any differences, it is a good idea to have a check-up once a year, especially if you have a lot of moles.