Malignant melanoma is a cancer which usually starts in the skin. More specifically, within the layer of skin which produces melanin (skin pigment), hence its name. It is an uncommon skin cancer, however it is the most serious one. The cells, either in pre-existing moles or normal looking skin, begin to over-produce, grow beyond control causing an alteration in skin appearance. This is usually noted as a changing mole, irregular in outline or colour.
Although the cause is not fully understood, there is a strong evidence to suggest that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can do long-term damage to the skin, especially if skin is likely to burn following exposure to strong sunshine. People with positive family history of melanoma are also, at higher risk of developing this type of skin cancer.
Malignant melanomas caught in its early stage have a very good chance of cure. The best treatment is surgery. This involves removing the tumour completely and radically enough so to involve an area of normal skin around it. Treatment protocol often involves two operations: first one when the original lesion is removed with a narrow margin of surrounding skin and the second one, when a further margin of skin from the original site needs to be excised. The second operation is performed only after the microscopic examination of the first specimen had been confirmed as melanoma. After the second, wider excision, tissue specimen is examined under a microscope again to ensure that no cancer cells have been left behind. This greatly reduces the risk of the melanoma recurring.
Some melanoma may spread to the lymph nodes. If the cancer cells escape (spread) from the original site, they are most likely to lodge in the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are present throughout the body. We roughly know which particular group of nodes drains what area of the body so it is possible to focus clinical examination to group of nodes which are at the highest risk of being affected pending exact site of primary melanoma. For example, lesions arising in the leg are likely to spread to the groin first, melanoma on the upper limb into armpit glands, head lesions into the neck glands etc. Involved nodes may produce lumps, but their enlargement is often totally asymptomatic and not easy to pick up. Once the diagnosis is made that the lymph nodes are affected, removal of all nodes from that area (neck, armpit, groin) is recommended. I personally do not perform these types of operations any more, but I work very closely to expert colleagues who do and will ensure you are transferred under their care promptly if and when required.
In most cases, it is possible to close the wound created by excision of original melanoma by simple suturing method. Sometimes however, it is necessary to repair the defect created by radical excision with a skin graft or skin flap as wound is too big for direct skin closure. Either reconstructive method aims to provide the most effective way of healing yet preserve tissue cosmesis as much as possible. Most operations for melanoma can be performed under local anaesthesia on a day care basis.
If you are awaiting the surgery for melanoma, please consider the following:
- Anticoagulation medication (Aspirin, Brufen, Warfarin, Clopidrogel) should ideally be stopped few days before the operation to reduce the risk of bleeding, but advise from the clinician who prescribed them is wise beforehand. I would strongly advise you to stop smoking prior to surgery as this can badly affect the outcome of surgery and increase complication rates.
- Please make sure that you arrange to be collected from the hospital as you will not be able to drive after the surgery.
- Plan your time off school / work / sports.
- Allow at least few weeks after surgery before considering a holiday.
When the melanoma is removed surgically, the tissue specimen is sent for examination by pathologist in laboratory. One of the things that is looked at under the microscope is how deep, or thick tumour is. Breslow classification is most commonly used. In brief, tumours are divided into several categorise of tumour thickness which lie between 1-4mm. The thinner the melanoma, the lower is the risk of it spreading elsewhere in the body. Tumours with Breslow thickness under 1mm in most cases have a very favourable prognosis. In Britain, most people are diagnosed with a melanoma of less than 2mm in thickness, which have a good chance of a cure.
Following adequate surgery, no further treatment or investigations are usually required straight away. You will need to be followed up in the clinic on a regular basis for a certain period of time. Initially these are usually arranged to be every 3 to 6 months. Appointments will gradually tail off over the period between 3-5 years. The length of the follow up is determined by exact type of melanoma and individual medical circumstances.
Regular check-ups at the hospital are important to detect any recurrences at the site of removal, or in the surrounding area. Particular emphasis is put on examination of the local lymph node basins like armpits, groins, neck etc. Any dark spots that develop either at or near the site of removal of the melanoma should be reported if noted by the patients in the meantime.
It is possible for some melanomas to spread to other parts of the body and if this happens, further investigation and treatments may be needed. This includes surgery, radiotherapy, immunotherapy or chemotherapy. These treatments would usually take place in regional, designated skin cancer units.
In a very small number of people the melanoma can spread beyond the local lymph nodes to distant lymph nodes, distant skin or other organs such as the lung, brain or liver. Any unusual symptoms that persist should be reported.
It is important to continue to examine your skin for any abnormal growths to detect early warning signs and to be aware of things you can do to help yourself.
Check for any existing or new skin lumps or moles that enlarge, change colour, bleed or itch. Most changes are harmless but they may indicate the start of a skin cancer. See your doctor if in doubt. The ABCD rule (see below) can help you remember what to look out for:
Asymmetry – the two halves of a melanoma may not look the same
Border – Edges of a melanoma may be irregular, blurred or jagged
Colour – The colour of a melanoma may be uneven, with more than one shade
Diameter – many melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter, the size of a pencil eraser
- Take care whilst in the sun, by wearing protective clothing and using high factor sunscreens (SPF+).
- Wearing a hat with a large brim is recommended.
- Avoid strong sunshine during 11am to 3pm if possible, especially over the summer months.
- Avoid using sunbeds.
- Pass on the message to friends and family about protecting themselves and checking alterations in moles and their skin.
- It is particularly important to protect children from strong sunlight
Research and clinical trials are on going, aiming to develop newer and more effective treatments for melanoma, which you may be eligible for depending on your diagnosis.
This leaflet provides only basic and generic information, but full details and explanations are provided at the consultation as no two patients are the same and personal circumstances vary greatly between individuals.
If you have any concerns following your surgery please contact:
- Hospital where you were operated:
– Ashtead 01372 221 442; St Anthony’s 020 8337 6691; Parkside 020 8971 8000
- Your GP practice
- My secretary on 0845 026 7776 (Monday – Friday, 9.30 – 18.00)