Melanoma: Diagnosis, treatment, and outcome

How do dermatologists diagnose melanoma?

To diagnose melanoma, a dermatologist begins by looking at the patient’s skin. A dermatologist will carefully examine moles and other suspicious spots. To get a better look, a dermatologist may use a device called a dermoscope. The device shines light on the skin. It magnifies the skin. This helps the dermatologist to see pigment and structures in the skin.

The dermatologist also may feel the patient’s lymph nodes. Many people call these lymph glands.

If the dermatologist finds a mole or other spot that looks like melanoma, the dermatologist will remove it (or part of it). The removed skin will be sent to a lab. Your dermatologist may call this a biopsy. Melanoma cannot be diagnosed without a biopsy.

This biopsy is quick, safe, and easy for a dermatologist to perform. This type of biopsy should not cause anxiety. The discomfort and risks are minimal.

If the biopsy report says that the patient has melanoma, the report also may tell the stage of the melanoma. Stage tells the doctor how deeply the cancer has grown into the skin.

The melanoma stages are:

Stage Description
Stage 0
(in situ)
Melanoma is confined to the epidermis (top layer of skin).
Stage I Melanoma is confined to the skin, but has grown thicker. It can be as thick as 1.0 millimeter. In stage IA, the skin covering the melanoma remains intact. In stage IB, the skin covering the melanoma has broken open (ulcerated).
Stage II Melanoma has grown thicker. The thickness ranges from 1.01 millimeters to greater than 4.0 millimeters. The skin covering the melanoma may have broken open (ulcerated). While thick, the cancer has not spread.
Stage III Melanoma has spread to either: 1) one or more nearby lymph node (often called lymph gland) or 2) nearby skin.
Stage IV Melanoma has spread to an internal organ, lymph nodes further from the original melanoma, or is found on the skin far from the orignal melanoma.

Sometimes the patient needs another type of biopsy. A type of surgery called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) may be recommended to stage the melanoma. When melanoma spreads, it often goes to the closest lymph nodes first. A SLNB tells doctors whether the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Other tests that a patient may need include x-rays, blood work, and a CT scan.

How do dermatologists treat melanoma?

The type of treatment a patient receives depends on the following:

  • How deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin.
  • Whether the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body.
  • The patient’s health.

The following describes treatment used for melanoma.

Surgery: When treating melanoma, doctors want to remove all of the cancer. When the cancer has not spread, it is often possible for a dermatologist to remove the melanoma during an office visit. The patient often remains awake during the surgical procedures described below. These procedures are used to remove skin cancer:

  • Excision: To perform this, the dermatologist numbs the skin. Then, the dermatologist surgically cuts out the melanoma and some of the normal-looking skin around the melanoma. This normal-looking skin is called a margin. There are different types of excision. Most of the time, this can be performed in a dermatologist’s office.
  • Mohs surgery: A dermatologist who has completed additional medical training in Mohs surgery performs this procedure. Once a dermatologist completes this training, the dermatologist is called a Mohs surgeon.

    Mohs surgery begins with the Mohs surgeon removing the visible part of the melanoma. Next, the surgeon begins removing the cancer cells. Cancer cells are not visible to the naked eye, so the surgeon removes skin that may contain cancer cells one layer at a time. After removing a layer, it is prepped so that the surgeon can examine it under a microscope and look for cancer cells. This layer-by-layer approach continues until the surgeon no longer finds cancer cells. In most cases, Mohs surgery can be completed within a day or less. Mohs has a high cure rate.

When caught early, removing the melanoma by excision or Mohs may be all the treatment a patient needs. In its earliest stage, melanoma grows in the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Your dermatologist may refer to this as melanoma in situ or stage 0. In this stage, the cure rate with surgical removal is nearly 100%.

When melanoma grows deeper into the skin or spreads, treatment becomes more complex. It may begin with one of the surgeries described above. A patient may need more treatment. Other treatments for melanoma include:

  • Lymphadenectomy: This is surgery to remove lymph nodes.
  • Immunotherapy: Help the patient’s immune system fight the cancer (example: interferon injections).
  • Chemotherapy: Medicine that kills the cancer cells (and some normal cells).
  • Radiation therapy: X-rays kill the cancer cells (and some normal cells).

Other treatment that may be recommended includes:

  • Clinical trial: A clinical trial studies a medicine or other treatment. A doctor may recommend a clinical trial when the treatment being studied may help a patient. Being part of a medical research study has risks and benefits. Before joining a clinical trial, patients should discuss the possible risks and benefits with their doctor. The decision to join in a clinical trial rests entirely with the patient.
  • Palliative care: This care can relieve symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. It does not treat the cancer. Many patients receive palliative care, not just patients with late-stage cancer. When melanoma spreads, palliative care can help control the pain and other symptoms. Radiation therapy is a type of palliative care for stage IV (has spread) melanoma. It can ease pain and other symptoms.

Outcome

This depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin. If the melanoma is properly treated when it is in the top layer of skin, the cure rate is nearly 100%. If the melanoma has grown deeper into the skin or spread, the patient may die.

Learn more about melanoma:

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