Melanoma is a technical word often used to describe cancer of the skin. The condition originates in pigment cells called melanocytes – the cells which color the skin and hair. It can quickly spread throughout the body if the cancer metastasizes. According to estimates from the CDC, a little over 10,000 people in the US die from the disease each year.
What is Melanoma – Different Types
Science has uncovered several different types of melanoma, not all of which affect the skin.
Cutaneous melanoma is the most common form of melanoma. The word cutaneous just means “skin”. It describes the range of conditions we most frequently associate with the disease.
Contrary to popular opinion, melanoma isn’t just a condition of the skin. It can start in the melanocytes that pigment the eyes. Ocular melanoma, which is also sometimes called choroidal melanoma. It is very rare, affecting only around 2,000 people in the US every year. However, it is deadly – in 50 percent of cases, cancer spreads to other parts of the body.
Melanocytes can also be found in any part of the body that has a mucosal layer. As a result, melanoma can be found in the throat, vagina, anus or mouth.
- 50 percent of cases are found in the head and neck region.
- 25 percent in the rectum and anus.
- 20 percent in the female reproductive system
- 5 percent in other mucus-lined tissues, like the gallbladder, esophagus, and bowel.
What Causes Melanoma?
The evidence suggests that the leading risk factor for melanoma is exposure to UV radiation, whether that’s from the sun or from artificial sources, like tanning beds. Experts believe that when skin is exposed to UV radiation, high energy particles hit the DNA in skill cells causing chunks to break off or mutate. If the body’s DNA repair mechanisms are weakened or impaired, then the cell may begin multiplying uncontrollably, leading to cancer in susceptible individuals.
Of course, exposure to UV radiation can’t be the only cause of melanoma since the disease also occurs in parts of the body, like the vagina and anus, which aren’t exposed to sunlight. In fact, UV radiation in cutaneous melanoma may only be a proximate cause, exacerbating other underlying risk factors. Scientists have identified a range of additional risks which could lead to cancer, including genetic propensities, family history, and environmental factors.
Is It Curable?
The good news is that if you catch melanoma early enough, then it’s often curable. But like most cancers, waiting until it gets worse is not a good idea.
Many people worry that moles are cancerous, but the vast majority are benign. Cancerous moles are usually asymmetrical, perhaps with a raised bump at one end and a flat patch at the other.
A mole may have turned cancerous if it no longer has a border or if the edges look scalloped or notched. Cancer may also be present if a mole changes color from regular brown to black, blue or even white. Check moles regularly, especially after prolonged periods of sun exposure.