Unfortunately, according to the National Cancer Institute, 1.81% (or 1 in 55) of men and women born today will be diagnosed with melanoma of the skin at some point in their lifetime(1). Since melanoma can be a very serious form of cancer if not caught early and treated, it’s important to understand what it is, and what you can do about it.
Melanoma begins in skin cells called Melanocytes. These special cells produce melanin, the chemical compound which gives skin its color. Melanin is produced in larger quantities (forming a “sun tan”) when you spend time in the sun (or in a tanning booth) because part of its purpose is to protect your body from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. A “sun burn” occurs when you expose your body to too many UV rays without wearing sunscreen, or before you have produced enough melanin (i.e. before you have a dark enough tan). Be careful though – just because you have a dark tan, doesn’t mean you are protected. Even a dark tan cannon protect you from the harmful effects of UV exposure such as premature wrinkles or “age spots”.
Over time, too much exposure to harmful UV rays, and especially too many sun burns, can cause the melanocytes to mutate and grow abnormally, sometimes into melanoma.
The chances of getting melanoma increases with age, but melanoma can form in someone who is young as well. Each year, there are over 50,000 cases of melanoma diagnosed in the United States. Luckily, however, most are caught early, and the chances of full recover are very high.
Once melanoma has spread beyond the original site, it becomes harder to treat. If it reaches the lymph nodes, it can spread from there to many other areas of the body. Most dangerously, it can spread to other organs such as the lungs, liver or brain, and once there it is difficult to treat. However, there is a lot of research in melanoma, and many promising treatments are now available through clinical trials.
Melanoma, like most cancers, is not new. In fact, historical evidence exists dating back 2400 years ago of possible signs of melanoma (2). The first surgeon to operate on melanoma which had metastad was John Hunter in 1787 (3).
René Laennec first described melanoma as a disease during a lecture for the Faculté de Médecine de Paris in 1804.(4) Since then, melanomas and their treatment have been studies throughout the world. In 1956, professor Henry Oliver Lancaster discovered that melanomas were directly associated the intensity of exposure to the sun, which is why since, one of the most important preventative measures is to avoid prolonged sun exposure.
In the last 50 years, funding for the study of treatments for melanoma has increased significantly, and the worldwide effort to provide a variety of solutions have intensified. Today in medicine, there are vaccines, chemotherapies, immune stimulants, virus treatments, and many other treatments being studies for melanoma. There are also a variety of other treatments types that may help stop the growth of melanoma, and destroy the tumors. Please see the “What Can I Do About It” section for more information on the variety of melanoma treatments.
(2) Urteaga O, Pack G (1966). "On the antiquity of melanoma". Cancer 19 (5): 607–10. doi:10.1002/1097-0142(196605)19:5<607::AID-CNCR2820190502>3.0.CO;2-8. PMID 5326247.
(3) Bodenham D (1968). "A study of 650 observed malignant melanomas in the South-West region". Ann R Coll Surg Engl 43 (4): 218–39. PMID 5698493
(4) Laennec RTH (1806). "Sur les melanoses". Bulletin de la Faculte de Medecine de Paris 1: 24–26. _
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