Melanoma Cancer

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Melanoma 101

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It’s less common than the other two major forms of skin cancer, which are called basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. However, melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to spread throughout the body, which makes it the most serious form. Other names your doctor may use for this cancer include malignant melanoma and cutaneous melanoma.


What is Melanoma?

Melanoma begins in melanocytes, which are cells found in the deep layers of your skin. Melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin that gives skin its color. When you are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays or any other source of UV (such as a tanning bed), melanocytes step up production of melanin, which protects the skin and causes it to darken. However, exposure to UV rays can damage the DNA of melanocytes and cause them to grow uncontrollably. Having certain gene mutations may make you more likely to develop melanoma.


Melanoma commonly occurs on parts of the body that get the most sun exposure, including the face, neck, chest, back, arms, and legs. However, melanoma can arise on any part of the body. While uncommon, melanoma can even affect the eyes or genitals.


What Are the Types of Melanoma?

There are four main types of melanomas. They include:


  • Superficial spreading melanoma: The most common form of melanoma grows slowly at first, but can penetrate deep into the skin over time. It’s more common in people with very fair skin who experience damage from UV rays. Certain gene mutations have been linked to superficial spreading melanoma.
  • Nodular melanoma: This form of melanoma, the second most common, can start out appearing to be a blood blister or bump on the skin. It’s also caused by UV damage and is fast growing.
  • Lentigo maligna melanoma: A slow-growing form of skin cancer, lentigo maligna melanoma is most common in older people whose skin is heavily damaged from UV exposure and typically occurs on the face, scalp, or neck.
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma: Although rare overall, acral lentiginous melanoma is the most common form of melanoma in people of African and Asian descent. It develops on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under toenails and fingernails. This slow-growing form of melanoma is not related to exposure to UV rays.


Doctors determine which type of melanoma a patient has by viewing a sample of skin cells under a microscope. Identifying the melanoma type is important for giving the patient a prognosis and deciding on a treatment plan.


How Does Melanoma Differ From Other Types of Skin Cancer?

Melanoma differs from the two other major forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, in three key ways:


  • Location: The visible part of your skin, called the epidermis, is where squamous cell carcinoma forms. Basal cell carcinoma develops in the lower portion of the epidermis, that is, the part you can’t see. Melanoma arises from cells deeper in the skin.
  • Frequency: Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are far more common than melanoma.
  • Chance of spreading: Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma rarely spread, or metastasize (though they still require treatment). Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body rapidly if it’s not detected and treated promptly.


What Are the Most Common Treatments for Melanoma?

The melanoma treatment plan your doctor recommends will depend on several factors, including the size (or depth) of the tumor, and whether the malignancy was detected early, before it could spread, or whether the cancer cells have migrated elsewhere in your body. Here is a brief summary of the various treatments for melanoma.


Surgery: Surgical removal of a tumor is the primary treatment for melanoma. When detected early, before melanoma has spread, surgery may be the only treatment needed. The most common surgery for melanoma is called wide excision, in which a surgeon uses a scalpel to remove the tumor, as well as some healthy-appearing tissue surrounding the tumor (known as a margin). A doctor then views the margin under a microscope. If no cancer cells are present, the surgery is complete. If cancer cells are detected, the surgeon will remove more tissue and repeat the process until healthy-appearing tissue has no evidence of cancer. This surgery usually leaves a scar. In some cases, melanoma may be treated with a technique called Mohs surgery, which often leaves a less-noticeable scar. However, Mohs surgery is only appropriate for some melanoma patients.


If melanoma has spread, surgery is unlikely to cure the disease. However, a doctor may recommend surgical removal of metastatic melanoma to alleviate symptoms it may be causing.


Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs that kill malignant cells or prevent them from dividing and making copies of themselves so that a tumor can grow and spread. Chemotherapy is sometimes administered after surgery to decrease the likelihood that the cancer will return, which is known as adjuvant therapy. However, chemotherapy is no longer offered to melanoma patients as often as in the past, since new medications that are more effective and less toxic have become available.


Radiation Therapy: While most melanoma patients do not require radiation therapy, it can play a role in some cases. Radiation therapy uses high-energy invisible beams to kill cancer cells. The most common form used in cancer therapy is called external beam radiation therapy, which is delivered from outside the body. In some cases, other forms of radiation therapy are used.


Immunotherapy: Your body has a natural defense network called the immune system. The purpose of immunotherapy is to strengthen the immune system and make it better able to fight cancer, including melanoma that can’t be cured by surgery. There are several forms of immunotherapy available for treating melanoma, including innovative new medicines called checkpoint inhibitors, which prevent cancer cells from “hiding” from the immune system.


Targeted Therapy: Scientists have identified several gene mutations, or alterations, that appear to play a role in causing melanoma cells to grow uncontrollably, form tumors, and spread. A targeted therapy is designed to identify and attack cancer cells that have these genetic mutations. Because these cutting-edge treatments are designed to strike only a specific target, they may be less likely than chemotherapy to harm healthy tissue and cause side effects. Targeted therapies for melanoma zero in on the following genes: BRAF, MEK, and C-KIT.


Clinical Trials

If you have melanoma that can’t be treated by surgery, it’s important to consider all of your treatment options. That includes participating in a clinical trial, in which researchers evaluate the benefits and safety of new, potentially life-saving therapies. Massive Bio’s artificial intelligence-powered platform, SYNERGY-AI, scans thousands of clinical studies in seconds to identify clinical trials that are recruiting patients like you. If you’re interested in enrolling in a clinical trial, contact Massive Bio today.



Sources: American Cancer Society, Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, Medline Plus, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, National Cancer Institute