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What is Melanoma ?


The body is chiefly composed of what we call cells, each of which is a microscopic self-contained unit of life, capable of dividing, and so making copies of itself. There are lots of different types doing different jobs.

The skin contains a type of cell which generates the chemical which gives color to our skin, and which generates more of it under the influence of sunshine, causing us to tan.

The coloring chemical is called melanin. The cells which produce it are called melanocytes.

It is very common, and totally harmless, for melanocytes to clump together on the skin. These clumps can be flat or raised. They can be either flesh-colored or contrasting, pink or brown. They are usually, but not always, round or oval and no bigger than the diameter of a pencil.

These clumps of melanocytes are commonly called moles. They only grow or change very slowly over years, and don’t return if removed.

Moles gone Mad - Melanoma

One of the functions of a cell (including a melanocyte) is to divide, making new copies of itself either for growth or for renewal.

In most situations new cells are only required infrequently and at a controlled rate, so each cell has an inbuilt “braking” system so as not to do it too often.

If this braking system is damaged, or goes wrong, the results can be unfortunate.

Such damage can be caused to cells near the surface by ultraviolet radiation in sunshine, as a result of excessive exposure with inadequate sun protection.

A cell with such a damaged braking system, which starts making runaway copies of itself, will likely make copies which start doing the same thing themselves. When this happens a clump of runaway cells will grow inside the body, eventually pushing others aside, and creating what we call a tumor.

Very slow ones (taking many years to grow a little, and within limits) cause no harm if left untouched, are easily removed, and are called benign.

But fast runaways (taking months, weeks or days) can invade and damage the tissue around them. Worse than that, bits can break off into the circulation systems, and so get carried around to new locations where they settle and continue their runaway growth, causing multiple problems around the body.

These fast runaways are malignant tumors, which we refer to as cancer. The spreading process is called metastasizing.

When the cell which goes runaway and forms a malignant tumor is a melanocyte in the skin, the result is melanoma, also called malignant melanoma, or skin cancer. If it spreads elsewhere, it is still melanoma even though the new runaway melanocytes colonies are no longer in the skin. It is then called metastatic melanoma.

Who gets Melanoma and where on their body ?

Melanoma is rare in people with black or dark skin. When they do get it it is usually under toe or finger-nails, or on the palms of hands or feet.

Melanoma is more common in those with paler skin. Although the chances increase as you get older, it is one of the most common cancers in young adults.

It can happen anywhere on the skin. In women a common location is on the lower legs, whilst in men it is common between shoulder and hip.

Recognizing Melanoma

The biggest clue is change. A sudden new mole, or an old one which starts to change noticeably over weeks or days is a signal to seek immediate medical advice. Most but not all melanomas have a black or blue-black area. They will change noticeably in color, shape or size, or maybe in the way they feel.

The best strategy is to get professional advice if at all concerned, since melanoma can in certain circumstances happen pretty quickly and be very dangerous.

On the other hand, it is easy to get paranoid, and although one should not attempt to diagnose oneself it may be reassuring to know more about what to look for, and what nasty moles are not melanoma. This may also be helpful when you notice something for the first time (perhaps after reading an article like this) and don’t know whether it is changing or not.

To help in this situation, our second article on melanoma gives detailed recognition guidance, including pictures of melanoma. Please remember - don’t self-diagnose on this information - looking at a few melanoma pictures cannot match going through medical school. If worried, seek help.

Click here for the second article dealing with how to recognize melanoma, and containing the pictures of melanoma

2 Comments so far

  1. Dan Bartlett March 20th, 2008 11:22 am

    I am studying for a medical surgical exam for my nursing that is focusing this week on cancers. This article was just the thing to help me get a good handle on melannomas. thank you so very much.

  2. brooke April 19th, 2008 11:45 am

    i have melonomer and im only 10 years old

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