What Do the Early Signs of Melanoma Look Like?

What is skin cancer?

Melanoma is the most aggressive of skin cancers. Changes in the skin, changes in existing moles and non-healing sores are all early signs of melanoma.Melanoma is the most aggressive of skin cancers. Changes in the skin, changes in existing moles and non-healing sores are all early signs of melanoma.

Skin cancer is the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the skin. Skin cancer usually arises on skin exposed to the sun, such as the face, lips, ears, scalp, neck, chest, arms and hands and on the legs especially in women. Though more common in lighter skin tones, skin cancer affects people of all skin tones.

There are three major types of skin cancer

Each type of skin cancer has a different pathology and presentation.

What is malignant melanoma?

Malignant melanoma is a one of the subtypes of skin cancer. All skin cancers have the potential to be locally invasive and spread to other parts of the body. Malignant melanoma is a highly aggressive skin cancer that tends to spread to other parts of the body. Non-melanoma skin cancers are comparatively less aggressive. Self-examination of the skin for suspicious changes, changes in existing moles, non-healing inflammation, ulcers or other abnormalities can help detect skin cancer at its earliest stages. Early detection of skin cancer gives you the greatest chance for successful skin cancer treatment.

What do the early signs of melanoma look like?

Melanoma in its early stages may presents as:

  • A large brownish spot with darker speckles
  • A mole that changes in color, size or texture or bleeds
  • Large brownish patch or spot
  • A small lesion with an irregular border with areas that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black
  • Pain, itching or burning of the mole

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body. It may arise from an existing mole that becomes cancerous or from normal skin. Melanoma tends to occur on the face or the trunk in men. In women, it tends to occur on the legs. Melanoma can also occur in areas not exposed to the sun. Melanoma can affect all skin tones but more common in lighter skin tones.

What causes malignant melanoma?

There are various factors that may increase the risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer:

  • Lighter skin tones:  Having less pigment (melanin) in the skin provides less protection from damaging UV radiation, hence higher risk of skin cancers. People with light skin, red hair, blue eyes, and/or a tendency to freckle are all at higher risk for melanoma development.
  • History of sunburns: Having had one or multiple blistering sunburns during childhood or as an adult increases the risk of skin cancer as an adult. 
  • Excessive sun exposure: Spending considerable time under the sun, living in sunny climates or high altitudes increases the risk of skin cancer.  exposure to tanning lamps and beds also increases the risk of skin cancer. Tanning is basically the skin’s response to the injury caused by excessive UV radiation exposure.
  • Moles: Having many moles or abnormally shaped moles called dysplastic nevi are at increased risk of skin cancer. More than 100 moles in adults and 50 moles in a child are risk factors.
  • Precancerous skin lesions: Having skin lesions known as actinic keratoses can develop into skin cancer.  precancerous skin lesions usually appear as rough, scaly patches that range in color from brown to pink. 
  • Family history: positive family history increases the risk of skin cancer 
  • History of skin cancer: If a person develops skin cancer once, there is a risk of it recurring
  • Weak immune system: A weak immune system means you have a higher risk developing skin cancer. 
  • Exposure to radiation: Exposure to radiation for cancer treatment or in the environment or occupation increases risk of skin cancer. 
  • Exposure to toxins: Exposure to toxic substances, such as arsenic, can increase the risk of skin cancer.

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How to prevent melanoma

Most skin cancers, including melanoma are preventable. The following protective measures can help prevent skin cancer:  

  • Avoiding the sun during the hottest part of the day, which is typically 11 AM to 4 PM. 
  • Applying sunscreen throughout the year. Sunscreens don't usually filter out all harmful UV radiation, especially radiation that can lead to melanoma but they are essential in providing overall protection from the sun.  A broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 should be used all year around and reapplied as required. Sunscreen is to be applied on all days including winter and cloudy days. It is advised to apply sunscreen over all exposed skin of the body and face, including the lips and ears. Special sunscreen is needed while swimming in the pools and beaches.
  • Wearing protective clothing can provide protection against the sun and harmful UV radiation. Sunglasses are essential to protect the eyes and skin around the eyes, such as the eyelids, against UVB radiation.
  • Avoid tanning beds because they emit UV rays that cause skin cancer.
  • Consuming sun-sensitizing medications such as certain antibiotics or isotretinoin for acne can increase skin sensitivity to sun. 
  • Self examination of the skin regularly is important for diagnosis and treatment. Any new skin changes or changes in existing skin growths, patches or moles should be reported to a physician as soon as possible 

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