By Dr Elena Kypri
The number of detected skin cancer cases is growing with worrying rates.
According to the US National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), over the past three decades, more people have been diagnosed with a form of skin cancer than all other cancers together.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the melanocytes, which are skin cells found in the upper layer of our skin.
While it is less common than other skin cancer types ― as it only accounts for 1% of skin cancers ― it causes most skin cancer deaths.
This is because of its ability to spread to other organs and parts of the body (metastasize) very quickly if not detected and treated early.
The first and most common sign of melanoma is a new mole on the skin – which happens in up to 80% of the cases – or a change in the appearance of an existing one.
It may happen anywhere on the body, but the most commonly affected areas are the ones most exposed to the sun.
Normal moles usually have a round or oval shape with a smooth edge.
In most cases of melanoma, moles have an irregular shape and more than one colour.
Detecting melanoma at an early stage is crucial and makes a significant difference.
If detected early – when the cancer is on the skin’s surface – melanoma has an exceptional prognosis with a 5-year survival rate of 99%.
The survival rate drops to 66% if the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 27% if it has metastasized to distant organs.
In most cases, a questionable mole is usually surgically removed and sent for a biopsy so it can be examined thoroughly.
Certain factors can increase the risk of developing melanoma.
The most important risk factor is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation light coming from the sun.
Having many moles, fair skin, or freckles may also raise the risk as these individuals are more sensitive to sunlight.
Racial identity may also play a role, as melanoma is about 20 times more frequent in Caucasians than Africans.
The risk of developing melanoma also rises when having a weakened immune system due to medical treatments or conditions.
Melanoma is more likely to occur in older people rather than young people; the average age at the time of melanoma diagnosis is 65 years.
Also, men have a higher rate of melanoma than women.
Gene mutations (changes) are also important risk factors for melanoma skin cancer.
Mutations can be either acquired mutations caused by environmental factors or hereditary mutations that exist from birth and can be inherited from a parent.
Overall, about 10% of newly diagnosed melanoma patients have a family history of the disease.
Genetic testing can be beneficial in these cases as it can identify whether a mutation exists and what risk factors could be avoided to reduce the risk of cancer developing in the future.
When diagnosed at an early stage, surgery is the main treatment for melanoma.
If it is not diagnosed until it has progressed, treatment may include immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.
In the past decade, medicines targeted towards specific mutations have been successfully used to slow or stop cancer cells from growing.
With the help of modern technologies, scientists are now able to develop vaccines for melanoma.
These are currently only given as part of clinical trials but will be a novel and effective treatment option for melanoma cancer patients in the future.
There is no secure path for melanoma skin cancer prevention.
For individuals who have a family history of melanoma, genetic tests for specific gene mutations associated with melanoma can determine whether someone has an increased risk of developing this disease.
When spending time outdoors, limiting your exposure to UV rays is the most important way to lower the risk of developing skin cancer.
Frequently performing self-skin checks to identify any new or abnormal moles can lead to an early diagnosis and increased chances of successful treatment.
When a change is noticed, informing a healthcare provider as soon as possible can be lifesaving.
Raising awareness and educating society regarding the risk factors and warning signs of melanoma is the best tool to prevent and reduce the number of skin cancers.
Dr Elena Kypri, Head of Clinical Services NIPD Genetics
PreSENTIA and ForeSENTIA cancer tests, offered by NIPD Genetics, can detect numerous genetic changes.
The content is intended only for educational purposes and should not be perceived as medical advice