Melanoma is a cancer of melanocytes, the pigment cells that give color to skin, hair and eyes. When UV rays hit some parts of the skin, free radicals are produced. These free radicals can damage DNA, causing mutations that eventually make normal melanocytes cancerous.
One bit of information that can give at least Asians room to breathe is that melanoma is a rare cancer and is more common in Caucasians than darker-skinned individuals. But Dr. Barbara Uy, a dermatologist at The Medical City in Pasig City, warns everyone is still at risk.
She suggests watching out for multiple moles, or those with a history of intermittent sun exposure, especially during their youth. Also at risk are those with a condition called congenital nevus, a condition which has large moles present at birth with hair growing from them.
The worrisome part is that in many cases, melanoma is detected at a stage where it has already spread to other parts of the body (metastasis), making recovery virtually impossible. According to the World Health Organization, about 48,000 people worldwide die of melanoma every year. However, early detection ups the chances of survival.
Dr. Uy says the earliest signs of melanoma include the appearance of new moles or a change in the shape or color of existing ones. The mole may eventually itch, bleed, or form an ulcer. “Know your moles,” suggests Dr. Uy. “Consult your dermatologist for any suspicious changes.”
When the melanoma has metastasized, it may cause vague symptoms such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. These symptoms, together with the appearance of strange moles, should lead to suspicions of melanoma.
In rare cases, melanomas can be inherited. A few abnormal, inheritable genes can greatly increase one’s risk of getting melanoma – for example, the mutated forms of the genes CDKN2A, CDK4, and XP.
If someone in your family has had melanoma, be more vigilant in examining your moles. Visit a dermatologist promptly if you use changes in the color and appearance of your moles. Most experts recommend a visit to the dermatologist once a year..