Many people, when first diagnosed with anything serious, immediately think the worst. And whilst a melanoma diagnosis needs to be taken very seriously, with new treatments constantly being researched, a melanoma diagnosis is often not the mortal blow it once was.
If you’re looking for more information on what Melanoma is, what causes it and what it looks like, you can read our previous blog post.
How do I get a melanoma diagnosis?
You will be given a physical examination on all parts of your skin, including feet, hands, scalp, nose, and inside your mouth. Your skin cancer doctor should be using at the very least a dermoscope, which is a magnifying instrument that magnifies the surface of your skin. At NBSCC and SCSCC we use a Microderm that can magnify your spots between 15 to 100 times).
If your doctor sees something suspicious she or he will take a biopsy.
If you need a biopsy, your doctor will most likely perform an excision biopsy, which is quick and simple. A local anaesthetic is applied to the area. Your doctor will then excise the mole and a little of the surrounding tissue using a scalpel. The wound will be sewn closed, and a sample sent to pathology. The pathologist will examine the sample specifically looking for cancer cells. Your results should be ready in about a week.
If melanoma cancer cells are found, you’ll receive a melanoma diagnosis.
What happens in staging?
The next step will be to stage the melanoma in order to determine the patient’s best treatment protocols.
Stage 0. At this stage the melanoma is restricted to the top layer cells (epidermis) and can be treated by surgical removal.
Stage 1. The melanoma may either measure 2mm minus ulceration, with metastases or lymph nodes affected; or be 1mm with ulceration but no metastases or lymph node affected. Treatment will be surgical removal of melanoma and possibly, any affected lymph nodes if the melanoma is 1-4mm thick and is rapidly growing.
Stage 2. The melanoma has not spread, but it is thick and ulcerated. Treatment will be surgical removal. However, nearby lymph nodes may also be removed to prevent the possibility of the cancer spreading further. To lessen the risk of cancer returning, you will most likely also have drug treatment or radiation.
Stage 3. The melanoma’s thickness is not considered as much as the fact that the lymph nodes are now involved. Treatment is to surgically remove the tumour and the lymph nodes, followed by drug treatment and radiation.
Stage 4. Regardless of melanoma thickness, focus is on the fact that it has spread to distant lymph nodes and other organs e.g. lungs, liver, brain or bone. Treatments include systemic drug therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and/or targeted therapy. Surgery and radiation may also be used to relieve symptoms.
What if I am given a melanoma diagnosis?
If melanoma is diagnosed and removed in its early stages, you’re highly likely to come out of it with a scar or two, but aside from that you’ll be just fine.
90% (approx) of people with a melanoma diagnosis are cured by surgically removing the primary melanoma.
For the remaining 10% of cases, where the melanoma has metastasized (or spread through to other parts of the body), immunotherapy, chemotherapy and other treatments have been shown to shrink the cancers and extend life considerably for many patients.
In a recent Melanoma Institute Australia-led trial, treatments and therapies were tested that altered specific gene behaviour. Furthermore, immunotherapies that enhanced the immune system, helped to extend life in spite of the patients having melanoma that had spread. Radiotherapy has also been shown to reduce recurrence rates.
However, not everyone responds to treatments in the same way. But, research like this is giving all patients with a melanoma diagnosis real hope.
What’s the mortality rate from a melanoma diagnosis?
Unfortunately, Australia and New Zealand have the second highest melanoma rates in the world. In Queensland alone the incidence rate is 71 cases per 100,000 people (2009-2013), according to the Melanoma Institute Australia. This exceeds almost other areas, both nationally and internationally.
And just in case you’re thinking you’re probably ‘good’ because you’re in NSW – according to the NSW Cancer Institute, as a state NSW doesn’t do much better, with 532 deaths in 2012.
Overall, more than 1,600 Australians died from melanoma in 2013 – that’s the equivalent of four people each day.
Can melanoma be treated?
Absolutely, yes, usually with a very quick and simple surgery to remove the melanoma from your skin.
However, if it has already metastasized, medical treatment will focus on tumour minimisation and life extension.
But speed of melanoma diagnosis is critical to your prognosis. So if you’ve noticed a spot that’s changed on your skin, best to get a skin cancer check sooner rather than later.
If I’m not likely to die, should I really be worried?
The bottom line is, melanoma IS dangerous if you leave it untreated.
If you’re worried about a spot on your skin or you used to be a sun worshipper, you should consider getting a skin cancer checkup. Of course, we’d be delighted to assist you. You can book your appointment by calling us on 999 0336 (Northern Beaches) or 9223 1608 (Sydney CBD), or by dropping us a note via the form below and we’ll be in touch.
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