4 Things You Need To Know About Superficial Spreading Melanoma

In the United States, one person dies of melanoma every 57 minutes. This deadly skin cancer comes in many forms, but the most common type is superficial spreading melanoma. Here are four things you need to know about superficial spreading melanoma.

What are the signs of superficial spreading melanoma?

Superficial spreading melanoma has a consistent clinical appearance and can be identified using the ABCD's of melanoma. ABCD is a mnemonic that stands for asymmetry, border irregularity, color, diameter. This mnemonic isn't as reliable for identifying other types of melanoma, but for superficial spreading melanoma, it's an excellent tool, so commit it to memory.

Asymmetry means that one half of a mole or skin lesion is different from the other half. Imagine a line drawn through the center of your mole: if both sides are exactly the same, it's symmetrical.

Border irregularity means that the edges of your mole are uneven or blur into your surrounding skin. Normal moles have well-defined borders.

Normal moles also have even colors, so if your mole contains multiple shades of brown, black, or other colors, it could be superficial spreading melanoma.

Finally, diameter refers to the size of your mole. Take a ruler and measure across the widest point of your mole: if it's more than 6 millimeters (0.25 inch), it's cause for concern.

Why do people get superficial spreading melanoma?

You probably already know that getting too much sun can lead to melanoma, but excessive sun exposure (either outdoors or in a tanning bed) isn't the only factor in determining who develops this type of cancer. Your family history also plays a role. If two or more of your family members have already had melanoma, your risk of also getting it at some point during your life is nearly 100%. If your family has never talked about melanoma before, start the conversation and find out if you are at risk.

Being immunocompromised can also increase your risk. Conditions like leukemia or HIV can suppress your immune system, as can medical procedures like organ transplantations. Certain types of medications, like corticosteroids, also have an immunosuppressive effect. If you're immunocompromised, you need to pay close attention to your skin.

What diagnostic tests are performed?

Superficial spreading melanomas are diagnosed with biopsy procedures. These procedures involve removing some or all of your mole and then having the tissue analyzed by a pathologist. Dermatologists prefer to remove the whole mole at this point, but if your mole is very large, only a small section will be removed.

If the biopsy reveals that your mole is cancerous, it will need to be staged. Staging involves measuring the thickness of the melanoma; thicker melanomas are more advanced (and more serious) than thinner ones. If your melanoma is advanced and your doctor is worried that it may have spread, further diagnostic tests, like lymph node biopsies, will need to be performed.

What treatments are available?

When superficial spreading melanoma is diagnosed early, while it's still thin and hasn't spread, it can be removed surgically. Surgery usually cures these early stage cancers. However, since a margin of healthy tissue (up to 2 centimeters) will also be removed along with the cancer, you'll be left with a large scar. If this scar is in a highly-visible location, such as your face, your dermatologist can offer treatments to reduce its appearance once your cancer has been cured.

When superficial spreading melanoma is diagnosed later, after it's spread, it can be treated with radiation therapy or chemotherapy. The prognosis for these more advanced cancers isn't as good, according to Mayo Clinic, which is why early diagnosis is so important.

If you have a suspicious-looking mole or lesion on your skin, it could be superficial spreading melanoma and should be examined by a professional of general dermatology.