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Melanoma – A Potentially Deadly Spot

12 Nov 2004 7:29 PM - Dr Roger Morris

Skin cancer in humans is linked with sunlight exposure. It is the most common and the most costly cancer in Australia where light coloured skin and an outdoor lifestyle dominate. It is becoming an even greater problem worldwide as modern lifestyles permit greater leisure time, and as changes in the environment, in particular damage to the ozone layer, allow increased levels of ultraviolet light to reach the earth's surface. Melanoma is the malignant form of skin cancer. In Australia it is the most rapidly increasing major cancer in males. Prevention of melanoma and skin cancer through reducing the amount of sunlight exposure received over a lifetime, but particularly before the age of 20, is the best solution to this problem. The early detection of a melanoma or skin cancer is important in achieving cure from these diseases.

The most dangerous form of skin cancer is melanoma because it can spread rapidly to other parts of the body. If detected early, however, it is curable by simple surgical excision. Every year over 6,700 cases of melanoma are reported in Australia and 900 die of the disease. There is a 90% chance of survival if a melanoma is detected in its early stages. It is therefore important that you check your skin for changes in moles and freckles. Look for changes in size, shape or colour, irregular borders, itchiness or bleeding and for newly appearing moles.

Most melanomas and skin cancers can be removed with minor surgery under local anaesthetic. However, if the melanoma has gone unnoticed or has been ignored, major surgery may be required involving removal of some of the lymph nodes in the neck, groin or armpit. In people with advanced melanoma, melanoma cells may transfer to the blood stream and spread internally. For these patients possible treatments include chemotherapy and, sometimes, radiotherapy. However a number of experimental techniques involving the stimulation of the individual immune system are under development around the world.

Chemotherapy (the use of drugs to kill cancer cells), is generally reserved for advanced cases of melanoma. The use of chemotherapy after surgical removal has not been shown to delay disease recurrence or prolong survival. Radiotherapy (the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells) is also generally reserved for advanced cases. It does not cure the melanoma but can relieve symptoms of tumour that has spread to other organs such as the brain. Immunotherapy, using natural substances like ‘interferon’ and ‘interleukin’, may be used to enhance the immune system’s cancer-fighting abilities. Other experimental treatments are currently being tested to see if they are safe and effective, especially in advanced melanoma disease. These experimental treatments include Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF), gene therapy (altering the DNA of white blood cells to allow them to recognise melanoma cells and kill them), melanoma vaccines (‘immunising’ the body against the tumour cells).

Sources:

Melanoma & Skin Cancer Research Institute (http://www.mascri.com)

Melanoma… The ABCs (http://www.melanoma.com/melanoma)