Melanoma is a malignant tumor of the melanocytes which are pigment cells that are found most prevalently in the lowermost layer of the epidermis, but also in the middle layer of the eye (also known as the uvea), in the inner part of the ear, in the meninges, in the bones, in the bowels and in the heart. With approximately 160,000 new patients being diagnosed with melanoma each year around the world, melanoma is a relatively rare type of skin cancer. However, melanoma is responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other skin cancer — about 75 percent of all skin cancer related death, which accounts for 48,000 deaths from malignant melanoma each year worldwide.
Melanoma as Recorded in Human History
Melanoma is by no means a new disease as it was discovered in 2400-year-old Peruvian Inca mummies. Much later but still long ago, an English physician named John Hunter may not have named it as such but he was reported, nonetheless, to be the first to perform surgery to remove a melanoma tumor in 1787. It was not until 1804 when René Laennec, a French physician, fully described and named the disease. In 1840, Samuel Cooper, a British surgeon, recognized that advanced stages of melanoma were untreatable when he stated that, “… the only chance for benefit depends upon the early removal of the disease …” Sadly and in spite of all the research, the situation still remains as Samuel Cooper announced it more than one hundred and sixty nine years ago. Henry Oliver Lancaster, an Australian professor, discovered in 1956 that melanomas were directly associated with the intensity of sunlight and the prolonged exposure to it.
Facts about the Risks and Causes of Melanoma
The risks and causes for melanoma can be divided into two key groups of factors: the intrinsic and the environmental.
Intrinsic or Genetic Factors — People whose close relatives have been diagnosed with melanoma are at a much higher risk than those who have no such family members.
Environmental or External Factors —
- – One of the major contributors to the development of melanoma is the excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation; the UVA and the UVB rays. As ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA of cells, the affected cell’s genes mutate and lead to uncontrolled growth which, in turn, results in cancerous tumors.
- – Frequent exposure to the sun from a young age, especially when sunburns led to blistering and peeling increases the risk of developing melanomas.
- – Users of sun-beds or tanning salons expose themselves to deep ultraviolet radiation and therefore increase their risk of developing melanomas.
- – Lighter skins are more prone to developing melanoma than darker skins.
- – People with birthmarks and moles tend to be more susceptible.
- – Melanoma most commonly appears on the backs of men and the legs of women.
- – New studies show that sunscreens prevent sunburns but they fail to protect from melanoma. Some researchers, such as Hans R. Larsen, believe that sunscreens even increase the risk for melanoma.
Symptoms of Melanoma
The quick self examination of any growth on the skin can follow the “A” through “E” format. If any of the five tests positive, medical consultation is in order: A = Asymmetrical skin growth; B = Border of the growth is irregular; C = Color variances in the growth; D = Diameter of the growth exceeds 6 mm; and E = Evolution of an existing growth (mole or birthmark) which changes its color, its shape or its size.
Treatments of Melanoma
Depending on the stage of the disease, its depth and its extent of invasion; treatments can include any one of the following or a combination: surgery, drug therapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.