Melanoma – Information, Treatment & Support

About melanoma

Melanocytes are the cells in the skin that produce melanin, which colours or pigments the skin. A melanoma starts from melanocytes. Melanomas can spread very quickly if not treated and can develop anywhere on the body.

What causes melanoma?

Exposure to UV light (from the sun or solariums) can cause melanoma. Exposure of the skin causes the cells to change their behaviour. People who have fair skin, spend a lot of time in the sun or have a family history are more at risk of developing melanoma.

What are the symptoms?

Melanomas are often first noticed when an exiting mole or freckle changes in its colour, shape or size. Melanomas can look different from one to another. Changes often occur over a couple of weeks rather than months and years. New moles, as adults, can be melanomas. As children moles develop often, however melanoma is common in adolescents and young adults.
TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor. You should get any suspicious looking moles checked out.
  • After visiting a GP, if melanoma is suspected, a referral will be made to a skin specialist, called a dermatologist.
  • A biopsy of the mole will then be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

If the results of the test show a melanoma, another referral will be made to a doctor who specialises in the treatment of cancer (called an oncologist).

Staging:

Once the cancer is diagnosed, it will be staged. The stage of a cancer is a term used to describe its size and whether it has spread beyond where it started in the body. Staging of melanomas occurs in 2 steps –

Measuring the thickness of the melanoma:

  • The deeper the cancer cells have grown into the skin, the greater their chance of spreading throughout the body.
  • If the cells are not very deep, then a biopsy may be the only treatment required for the melanoma.
  • If the cells are deep, then the tissues in the surrounding area may need to be removed, and further treatment (such as chemotherapy) may be required.

Identifying any spread of disease:

  • The doctor will examine the lymph nodes closest to the melanoma.
  • If the doctor feels a lump in the lymph nodes, they will insert a needle into the lymph node to remove some cells for examination.
  • Other tests may be performed to look for cancer in the internal organs.

These tests are only needed if the melanoma is very deep. These tests include:

A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan treatment. It will depend on stage and location of the melanoma. If it is a low stage melanoma, then a biopsy to remove it may be all that is required. Treatment may be coordinated by a surgeon, an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation), depending on the stage of melanoma.

Treatment may involve:

Surgery for a melanoma:

  • Melanomas are always first removed by surgery.
  • The mole and some of the surrounding tissue will be removed and then the skin closed. For more extensive melanomas (in size), a skin graft over the area may be needed.

For more information about surgery, go to our surgery page.

Radiotherapy for a melanoma:

  • Radiotherapy may be used to destroy any melanoma that has spread to another part of the body. The radiation will be directed towards that tumour.

For more information about radiotherapy, go to our radiotherapy page.

Chemotherapy for a melanoma:

  • Chemotherapy may be used to try shrink the size of the tumour and to get rid of any cancer cells around the body. This may be used with surgery and radiotherapy.

For more information about chemotherapy, go to our chemotherapy page.

Side effects:

There are some side effects of the treatments for a melanoma. Information can be found in our side effects page.

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