Metastatic Melanoma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Outlook

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  • The Least Common Type of Skin Cancer

    The Least Common Type of Skin Cancer

    Melanoma occurs when skin cells that make the pigment (coloring) called melanin grow out of control and form a tumor. It may begin in normal skin or in pigmented skin, like a mole. Melanoma can also begin in other pigmented parts of the body, like the iris of the eye or the small intestine, but that’s rare.

    Metastatic melanoma is the least common skin cancer. It’s also the most deadly because it spreads (metastasizes) quickly and easily to other parts of the body.

    In 2013, 76,690 people were diagnosed with melanoma in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. In the same year, 9,480 died of the disease.

  • Melanoma Risk Factors

    Melanoma Risk Factors

    Your risk of developing melanoma increases as you age. You’re also at risk if you have:

    • red or blonde hair
    • blue or green eyes
    • fair skin that burns easily
    • close relatives who have had melanoma
    • certain types of moles or several birthmarks
    • a weakened immune system

    Other risks include:

    • living in a sunny climate or at high altitudes
    • spending a lot of time in natural or artificial sunlight
    • having blistering sunburns as a child or teen
  • Symptoms of Metastatic Melanoma

    Symptoms of Metastatic Melanoma

    Think of melanoma symptoms as the ABCDEs:

    • Asymmetry: One side of an abnormal area, like a mole, doesn’t match the other.
    • Borders: The outside edges are ragged.
    • Color: The area changes color, turning black, tan, brown, red, blue, white, or a mixture of  those colors.
    • Diameter: The abnormal spot is larger than a pencil eraser.
    • Evolution: Its appearance continues to change.

    The earlier you notice symptoms of melanoma, the better your prognosis. Check your skin carefully every month.

  • Biopsies Help Determine Danger

    Biopsies Help Determine Danger

    If you find an abnormal mole, see your doctor. They may need to get a sample (biopsy) from the spot to help make a diagnosis. Your doctor will numb the area and perform one of the following types of biopsy:

    • shave biopsy: The growth is shaved off with a thin, sharp blade.
    • punch biopsy: A sharp, hollow tool is used to withdraw a circle of tissue.
    • incisional biopsy: Part of the growth is removed with a scalpel.
    • excisional biopsy: The growth and some surrounding tissue is removed with a scalpel.
  • What the Stages of Melanoma Mean

    What the Stages of Melanoma Mean

    Doctors use a process called “staging” to determine how far the cancer has spread and how to treat it. There are several stages of melanoma:

    • stage 0: The melanoma is only in the top layer of the skin.
    • stage 1: The tumor is not more than one millimeter thick. Its top may or may not look broken down.
    • stage 2: The top of the tumor looks broken down and is between one and two millimeters thick.
    • stage 3: The melanoma cancer cells have spread to nearby tissue or at least one nearby lymph node.
    • stage 4: Cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes and organs far from where they started.
  • Treating Melanoma

    Treating Melanoma

    Treatment depends on several things, including:

    • where the melanoma is located on the body
    • the thickness of the tumor
    • how deeply it has grown into the skin
    • how far the melanoma has spread
    • the patient’s age and health

    The standard treatment for melanoma is surgery. The surgeon removes the tumor along with some of the tissue around it to reduce the chance of leaving any cancer cells behind. If a large area of skin is taken, the surgeon will replace it with healthy skin from another part of your body.

  • Other Treatments for Melanoma

    Other Treatments for Melanoma

    Your doctor may use other treatments to make sure all of the cancer is gone, particularly if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Other treatments include:

    • chemotherapy
    • radiation therapy
    • biological therapy
    • a combination of all three

    It’s much harder to treat melanoma when it has spread to other parts of the body. In some cases, it can’t be cured.

  • Alternative and Complimentary Treatments for Melanoma

    Alternative and Complimentary Treatments for Melanoma

    Some people decide to use complimentary or alternative medicine (CAM) with—or instead of—standard cancer treatments. Most CAM therapies have not been through careful scientific studies. There is no reliable proof if they’re safe, how well they’ll work, or if they’ll work at all.

    The CAM therapies used most often by people who have survived cancer include:

    • prayer and spiritual practice
    • relaxation methods
    • nutritional supplements and vitamins

    Some CAM therapies have been helpful for managing the side effects of standard cancer therapies.

  • The Outlook of Melanoma Treatment

    The Outlook of Melanoma Treatment

    Doctors often use survival rates to discuss the prognosis (chance of recovery) of a patient with melanoma. Other factors may affect the prognosis too. They include:

    • stage of the cancer
    • type (or types) of treatment used
    • genetic changes in the cancer cells
    • how the cancer responds to treatment
    • the patient’s age and general health

    Survival rates are based on five and 10-year outcomes. The higher the melanoma’s stage, the poorer the outlook.