Avail Dermatology

Understanding Melanoma

Melanoma may be less common than other types of skin cancer, but it is the most deadly. This year alone, melanoma will claim the lives of some 9,500 of its 77,000 victims. For this reason, it is important to be aware of it and its symptoms.

What is it?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in the melanocytes, a type of cell found in the thin, top layer of skin, known as the epidermis. Melanocytes produce the brown pigment called melanin that gives skin a tan color. For unknown reasons, melanocytes can become melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. Fortunately, melanoma can often be seen on the skin, which makes it easier to detect early on. It can almost always be cured if it is detected early. Unlike most other types of skin cancer, melanoma grows rapidly and has a strong tendency to metastasize (“spread into the body”) if not removed early. Once they spread, they are nearly always untreatable and fatal. That risk is why prevention and early detection are such high priorities at Avail Dermatology.

How can I prevent it?

The exact cause of melanoma has yet to be discovered, but there are known risk factors.  The most important (because it is preventable) is excessive UV radiation—from sunlight and sunburns, or tanning beds.  The easiest thing you can do is stay out of the sun as much as possible, apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and avoid tanning beds at all costs. Other risk factors include heredity (a family history of melanoma), and just having a larger than normal number of moles.

Particular types of moles may also increase one’s risk of developing melanoma. Follow the ABCDE guidelines for identifying when a mole might be dangerous.

What should I look for? Dermatologists use a series of characteristics to identify moles that may be cancerous, or at greater risk of becoming cancerous. The most important of these are:

  • Asymmetry: The mole is asymmetrical in shape
  • Border: The edges are irregular rather than smooth
  • Color: The mole has multiple colors, particularly dark colors. Moles that have a true “jet black” area are very worrisome and should immediately be evaluated.
  • Diameter: The mole is larger than a pencil eraser in size
  • Evolving: This is another particularly important sign to watch for. If the mole is changing rapidly—larger, raising up, changing in color—or “acting differently”—itching constantly, bleeding, scabbing—this is an important warning sign.

Some benign moles have some of these characteristics, and not all cancerous moles have all of them. It takes experience and training to reliably know what to do, and your best option is to have one of the dermatology specialists at Avail Dermatology evaluate your moles. They can assess them, and if necessary, perform a biopsy to test the mole under the microscope. These specimens are processed in our own laboratory, and read by our dermatologist, Dr. Jill Buckthal, who is board-certified in dermatopathology. Our ability to consult on a daily basis with Dr. Buckthal ensures that we get rapid and clinically reliable results.

Most moles are benign, but individuals with a large amount of moles should get their skin checked by a dermatologist regularly. We also recommend that patients perform monthly checks on themselves at home. Men should check backs and chests thoroughly, as this is where melanoma most often begins on males. Women should pay special attention to their legs when checking for melanoma.

If you’re worried about your risk of developing skin cancer, schedule an appointment with the experts at Avail Dermatology, or give us a call at (770) 251-5111.