By Dr. Columba Quigley
Melanoma is one of the most common cancers of the skin. Before describing more about melanoma itself, let's have a look at what the skin normally does.
About the skin
The skin is the largest organ in the body and it plays an important role in keeping us healthy it:
- Acts as a wall that protects the body from injury
- Keeps out infection
- Keeps in heat & fluid like water
- Protects our bodies from harmful effects of sunlight, especially the rays that you cannot see, like ultraviolet (UV) light.
The skin is divided into two layers; the top layer contains melanocytes at the base. Melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin.
Melanin gives your skin its colour and protects it from the harmful effects of the sun.
When exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more melanin to absorb the damaging rays.
People with dark skin have the same number of melanocytes but they make more melanin, so have more natural protection from the sun.
The skin replaces itself every 27-30 days by shedding the top layer and replacing it with new skin cells. To do this, the normal skin cell copies itself by dividing and then growing. The cell then splits to give two normal cells. These replace the old cells that die.
What happens in melanoma?
In melanoma, the splitting of the melanocyte cells gets out of control and they keep on growing and splitting to make more new cells than the body needs. These unwanted cells come together as a lump called a tumour. The tumour gets in the way of other cells and stops them working properly.
How do you recognise a melanoma?
There are some warning signs that can be seen. For example, a change in normal skin or a change in a mole that was already there. If anything looks different, you need to ask your GP. He or she can then decide whether you need to see a skin doctor or dermatologist.
The doctors can tell a lot by just looking at the skin, but even more by taking a little skin out (a biopsy) and studying it under the microscope. They can then say for sure whether it is benign, like a mole, or malignant, like a melanoma.
A benign tumour keeps to itself. A malignant tumour causes more havoc.
What is the treatment?
As a melanoma can cause havoc to the other cells in the body, it is important to treat it quickly.
First of all, the doctors check to see if it has spread anywhere else, like lymph nodes. To do this they may need a chest x-ray, or other special scans.
Most people only need surgery, which means that the tumour is removed from the skin.
Sometimes, other special treatment is needed, like chemotherapy, radiotherapy or immunotherapy.
Why do people get melanoma?
Although we cannot always explain why, it seems that some things may make melanoma more likely:
- Too much sun
- Using sunbeds
- Having lots of moles
- Very fair skin
But there are things that everyone can do to help prevent getting a melanoma:
- Don't use sunbeds!
- Always be safe in the sun
- Never get sunburnt
- Use lots of sunscreen (high factor & often)
- Wear protective clothing, a hat & sunglasses
By being safe now, it will protect you later!
About Dr. Columba Quigley
Dr. Columba Quigley is a member of the medical writing team at Medikidz, a charity that provides children and teenagers with informative, accessible and fun comic books to help them understand their bodies and illness.