Melanoma is the most severe form of skin cancer, and it occurs in the cells responsible for producing melanin (melanocytes). Although it primarily affects the skin, it is also known to form in the eyes and, in some cases, the intestines.
According to estimates by the American Cancer Society for the United States in 2019, there will be approximately 96,480 new cases of melanoma, and about 7,230 deaths are expected to occur due to the disease. Globally, there were about 287,723 new cases of melanoma cancer diagnosed in 2018, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.
In fact, while many other cancers (such as lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer) have seen decreasing rates of new cases since the late 1900s, the incidence of melanoma has actually doubled during the past three decades in the United States. The Melanoma Research Alliance estimates that one person dies of melanoma every hour, every single day.
The risk of getting melanoma is 20 times higher in whites than in African Americans, with the lifetime risk of getting melanoma around 2.6% for whites, and 0.1% for blacks. Some of the most common risk factors for developing melanoma include high ultraviolet (UV) light exposure (such as from sunlight and tanning beds), having moles, fair skin, freckling, light hair, a family history of melanoma, and having a weak immune system.
As with many cancers, the risk of getting melanoma is higher as you age, with the average person diagnosed with melanoma being 63. However, melanoma is also one of the most common cancers in young men and women under the age of 30.
If you’re older, or even if you’re younger but have one or more of the risk factors listed above, it is recommended that you consult with your doctor for melanoma screening. Here are 7 melanoma symptoms you shouldn’t ignore. While melanoma is a serious skin cancer, the chances of successfully treating it are higher if the condition is caught early.
1. Unusual Moles
Often the first sign of melanoma (a new spot or a change in the appearance of an existing mole or freckle(s)) is also the most common symptom of melanoma. An “unusual” mole is one that develops out of nowhere, appears to be growing larger, is irregular in shape, has multiple colors such as brown, black, or red, or may even begin to itch and bleed.
Health professionals recommend performing a self-exam, and one of the best examinations is using the ABCDEs of melanoma, as outlined below:
- Asymmetry: In this case, the mole has an irregular shape.
- Border: The borders of the mole are irregular or jagged.
- Color: Rather than being one color, the mole’s color is uneven or is multi-colored.
- Diameter: The mole is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: Rather than being constant, the mole seems to change in size, texture, or shape.
While this self-test is extremely effective and helpful, the best way to know if you have melanoma for sure is to consult with your doctor. If your mole(s) show any of the above abnormalities, schedule an appointment for a consultation with your doctor as soon as possible.
2. Hidden Melanoma Under Fingernails
While melanomas mostly occur on the surface of your skin, they can also develop in other areas of your body that are rarely ever exposed to direct sunlight and are thus commonly referred to as hidden melanoma. One example of hidden melanoma is that which occurs under a fingernail or toenail (subungual). When melanoma forms under the fingernail or toenail, it tends to resemble the average bruise, thus making it harder to identify. Subungual melanoma begins where keratin originates at the nail matrix, which is essentially the base of the nail. There are also other classifications of nail melanomas, such as ungula melanoma (occuring under the nail plate) and periungual melanoma (starting with the skin nearest the nail plate).
Of all new melanoma cases, approximately 1.4 percent of them affect the fingernail, as described here.
3. Hidden Melanoma in the Mouth
Another form of hidden melanoma is that occurring in the mouth—as oral melanoma. While cutaneous (affecting the skin) melanoma is directly linked to factors such as excessive sun exposure and currently existing moles/freckles on the skin, oral melanoma risk factors are actually unknown. It doesn’t seem to have any direct relation to common cancer risk factors such as smoking or alcohol intake, making it hard to track. Characteristics of oral melanoma include pigmented lesions in the mouth that occur mostly on either the soft or hard palate, followed by the gums. In some cases, the lesions may be painful or begin to bleed.
While direct risk factors are unknown, it is indeed more common in Japanese people than any other groups and affects men more than women. Currently, oral melanoma is estimated to account for anywhere from 0.2-8 percent of all new melanoma cases.
4. Hidden Melanoma in the Eye
The third form of hidden melanoma to be mindful of occurs in the eye—uveal or ocular melanoma. Currently, this is the most common type of cancer that affects the eye, particularly affecting the uvea (the layer of the eye between the retina and the “white” of the eye). Currently, there are approximately 2,000 to 2,500 new cases of ocular melanoma annually in the United States alone. This form of hidden melanoma is characterized by: dark spots in the iris that seem to grow larger, a sensation of seeing flashing lights, constantly watery eyes, or progressive weakening of vision.
While medical professionals are not quite sure what the exact cause of this cancer is, it is commonly accepted that genetics play a fundamental role. Risk factors for this hidden cancer include having blue eyes, excessive exposure to UV light, being Caucasian, or having a family history of ocular melanoma.
5. Blurry Vision
As mentioned earlier, melanoma can occur in places you’d least expect and are referred to as hidden melanoma. When eye melanomas form, they often occur in the part of your eye that’s underneath your eyelids and can’t be seen when looking in a mirror. Eye melanoma also doesn’t cause many early symptoms, making it a hard case to detect. When symptoms do occur, however, they usually come in the form of a sensation of specks of dust in your vision, a growing dark spot on your iris, loss of peripheral vision, or poor/blurry vision in one eye. If any of the above symptoms occur, schedule an appointment with your doctor to see if they may be a cause for concern.
6. Swollen Lymph Nodes
Your lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, are bean-shaped clusters of tissue that have the important function of protecting your body from infections and other harmful conditions, including cancerous cells. Essentially, lymph vessels carry these harmful cancer cells, bacteria, and viruses from organs throughout the body to the lymph nodes. Once they reach the lymph nodes, the harmful cells are eradicated. The lymph nodes are filled with white blood cells, which fight and destroy these cells.
When the body is fighting cancer, such as melanoma, the lymph nodes may swell as cancer-fighting activity increases. If you notice that your lymph nodes become swollen or even sensitive/painful, schedule a visit to your doctor for testing.
7. Swelling of the Liver
While melanoma is mostly found on or beneath the surface of the skin, it can also spread to other parts and organs of the body through a process called hematogenous spread. When melanoma spreads, it is also referred to as metastatic melanoma. This occurs when a tumor invades a nearby vessel and cells travel to the other organs. Some of the most common sites for metastatic melanoma include the lungs, brain, and liver. When metastatic melanoma spreads to the liver, it causes liver cancer, and one of the biggest symptoms of liver cancer is a swollen or enlarged liver. An enlarged liver symptoms include: fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, and yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. If you notice any of these, especially accompanied by unusual moles on the skin, consult with your doctor immediately for an examination.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.