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Melanoma


Alternative Names:

Skin cancer - melanoma; Malignant melanoma; Lentigo maligna

Exams and Tests:

Your doctor will check your skin and look at the size, shape, color, and texture of any suspicious areas.

If your doctor thinks you might have skin cancer, a piece of skin from the growth will be removed. This is called a skin biopsy. The sample is sent to a lab for examination under a microscope.

A sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy may be done in some people with melanoma to see if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Once melanoma has been diagnosed, CT scans or other types of x-rays may be done to see if the cancer has spread.

Treatment:

Surgery is needed to treat melanoma. The skin cancer and some surrounding area will be removed. How much skin is removed depends on how deep the melanoma has grown.

If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, these lymph nodes may also be removed. After surgery, you may receive a medicine called interferon.

Treatment is more difficult when the melanoma has spread to other organs. In this case, it usually cannot be cured. Treatment involves shrinking the skin cancer and making you as comfortable as possible. You may receive:

  • Chemotherapy: Medicines are used to kill cancer cells. It is usually given if the melanoma has returned or spread.
  • Immunotherapy: Medications such as interferon or interleukin help your immune system fight the cancer. They may be used along with chemotherapy and surgery.
  • Radiation treatments: These may be used to relieve pain or discomfort caused by cancer that has spread.
  • Surgery: Surgery may be done to remove cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. This is done to relieve pain or discomfort associated with the growing cancer.

If you have melanoma that is hard to treat, you might consider enrolling in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor for more information. Researchers continue to study new treatments.

Support Groups:

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Outlook (Prognosis):

How well a patient does depends on many things, including how soon the cancer was diagnosed, and how far it has spread.

If caught early, some melanomas can be cured.

Melanoma that is very deep or has spread to the lymph nodes is more likely to return after treatment. If it is deeper than 4 mm or has spread to the lymph nodes, the cancer is more likely to have spread to other tissues and organs.

Melanoma usually cannot be cured when the cancer has spread beyond the skin and nearby lymph nodes.

If you have had melanoma and recovered, it is very important to examine your body regularly for any unusual changes. Your risk of melanoma increases once you have had this cancer. Melanoma can return years later. Usually, people who have had melanoma are checked by their skin doctor several times a year.

Possible Complications:

Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body very quickly.

Melanoma treatment can cause side effects, including pain, nausea, and fatigue.

When to Contact a Medical Professional:

Call your health care provider if you notice a new growth or any other changes in your skin. You should also call if an existing spot becomes painful, swollen, or inflamed, or if it starts to bleed or itch.

Prevention:

Some people should see a dermatologist for regular skin exams. These include people with:

  • A family history of melanoma
  • Severely sun-damaged skin
  • Lots of moles on their skin

A skin doctor can examine you and tell you whether you need regular skin checks. Sometimes, unusual moles are removed to prevent them from turning into melanoma.

You should also examine your own skin once a month, using a mirror to check hard-to-see places. Call your doctor if you notice any changes.

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to reduce your exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet light is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to avoid sun exposure during these hours. Protect your skin by wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, long skirt, or pant when you do have to be outside. The following tips can also help:

  • Apply high-quality sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15, even when you are only going outdoors for a short time.
  • Apply a large amount of sunscreen on all exposed areas, including ears and feet.
  • Look for sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB light.
  • Use a waterproof formula.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply it often, especially after swimming.
  • Use sunscreen in winter, too. Protect yourself even on cloudy days.

Other important facts to help you avoid too much sun exposure:

  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light more, such as water, sand, concrete, and white-painted areas.
  • Be extra careful at higher altitudes, where skin burns faster.
  • Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
References:

Bichakjian CK, Halpern AC, Johnson TM and the work group of the American Academy of Dermatology. Guidelines of care for the management of primary cutaneous melanoma. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011;65:1032-1047.

Gangadhar TC, Fecher LA, Miller CJ, et al. Melanoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 69.

National Cancer Institute: PDQ Melanoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Last modified March 19, 2014. Available at http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/melanoma/HealthProfessional. Accessed May 5, 2014.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. (NCCN Guidelines): Melanoma. Version 4.2014. Available at http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/melanoma.pdf. Accessed May 5, 2014.


Review Date: 5/5/2014
Reviewed By: Richard J. Moskowitz, MD, Dermatologist in Private Practice, Mineola, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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