Melanoma cases are on the rise, prompting new research into causes and treatment

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over a recent 10-year period ending in 2018, invasive melanoma increased by an average of 1.2% per year. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 3,100 cases of skin melanoma will be diagnosed in Michigan in 2022. Nationally, 99,780 cases are expected, including more than 7,600 deaths. More information is uncovered about the likelihood, causes, and treatment as research continues.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the word melanoma literally means “black tumor” and evolves from skin cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that produce skin pigment. Usually, older skin cells shed when replaced by newer cells. Cancer cells can be caused by new cells growing unevenly or out of control. Although melanoma is not as common as other cancers, it is considered one of the most dangerous due to its tendency to affect other parts of the body quickly. While about 30% of melanomas begin to develop in moles, 70% arise from previously healthy skin.

Causes and risk factors


Melanoma has historically appeared in more men than women. However, the Mayo Clinic reports that the risk of melanoma appears to increase in people under 40, especially in women. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of melanoma is 20% higher in Caucasians than in African Americans.

Overexposure to the sun is attributed to 80% of melanoma cases. The sun’s unfiltered ultraviolet rays can cause changes in genes that can alter the normal division of skin cells. Artificially induced ultraviolet rays in tanning beds can have the same impact. The Cleveland Clinic states that approximately 6,000 cases of melanoma are attributed to tanning bed use in the United States each year.

Other risk factors include a family history of melanoma, fair skin, an abundance of freckles, and the presence of moles, especially atypical moles. A weakened immune system, the occurrence of sunburn that causes blisters, and physical characteristics of blond or red hair or blue eyes may also signal risk. Permanent residence at higher elevations or near the equator may also be of concern, particularly when other risk factors are present.

Symptoms

Although the danger of spreading melanoma once it develops is great, if caught early it can be controlled. The American Cancer Society says early detection often leads to a cure. It is important to note the changes that may occur in the skin. Early symptoms of melanoma include the appearance of a new spot on the skin or the expansion or discoloration of an existing spot. Additionally, if a mole changes appearance or develops an unusual border, this could also be a sign of melanoma. If a mole keeps changing in size, shape, and color, that can also be a warning. If a spot on the skin reaches a diameter of six millimeters, or about the size of a pencil eraser, this is also cause for concern.

Currently researching

As for treatment research, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that progress is being made in the treatment of melanoma and other skin cancers. They include targeted therapies and immunotherapies that have shown improved survival rates for skin cancer patients. Targeted therapies focus on melanoma cells with less risk to other cells. Drugs or other therapies are designed to focus on cancer cells. Among the currently approved immunotherapies are three immune checkpoint inhibitors for tumors that cannot be surgically removed. Research into using some of these inhibitors in combination with others is being investigated as a possible way to shrink melanomas.

Ways to help prevent skin cancer

In addition to noticing changes in the color or characteristics of the skin, other preventive measures against skin cancer are recommended. Avoiding direct sunlight during particularly bright times of the day, such as midday, the use of protective clothing and sunscreen are all helpful. In addition to sunscreen, a lip balm with sunscreen also helps. It is also important to start protection early. Parents should take steps with their children, such as using sunscreen and being discreet about the amount of sun exposure, to reduce the likelihood of skin cancer later in life.

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Omar P. Haqqani is the Chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at Midland Vascular Health Clinics.

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