The Risks of Melanoma: How This Cancer Can Hide on Your Skin

October 17, 2022
William Hanner D.O.

When people talk about skin damage, their minds tend to focus on the areas we can immediately see—our face, our arms—the places where sunburns happen, as well as where moles and freckles are most easily seen. Yet the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, often hides in spots where you might not think to look for it. And if melanoma is not treated early, it can spread and become life-threatening.

Here is what you need to know about how this cancer can hide on your skin, and how you can spot signs of it before it can spread.

What is Melanoma, and What Causes It?

Considered to be the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma first forms in the cells that produce melanin and give your skin its color. When these cells (called melanocytes) are exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or a tanning bed, they cause your skin to darken. But they can also become damaged in the process, mutating and reproducing uncontrollably.

Melanoma is much less common than other types of skin cancer, such as basal cell and squamous cell cancers—yet it creates more of a risk for people because it can rapidly spread into the body’s organs. This makes finding and treating melanoma early a must. 

Who is at Risk of Developing It?

Melanoma is slightly more common among those who have paler skin, as well as those with a large number of moles. Skin cancer is also more likely to occur among those who have had a history of sunburns, especially if one or more of them was severe. It is also more common among those with weakened immune systems, as well as those who have family members who have had melanoma.

Research has shown that those who have had cancer elsewhere, such as breast cancer, have increased risks of developing melanoma. And those with melanoma have increased risks that the cancer cells may spread from the skin to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and lymph nodes. If you have cancer with an undiagnosed primary location—that is, doctors are not sure where your cancer first started—malignant melanoma may be the cause.

But ultimately, melanoma can form on anyone’s skin, including those with darker skin tones. And cases have been increasing in those under the age of 40, particularly women. So, it is important to know what the signs are—and where to look—because melanoma can sometimes “hide” if you do not spot it soon enough.

Where Can Melanoma Appear?

While other forms of skin cancer tend to form in and around moles, melanoma occurs on any part of your skin—and it actually tends to show up most frequently in areas that do not have any moles or freckles. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, as much as 70-80% of melanomas show up on normal-looking skin. So, melanoma can appear in places where you may not easily see or think to look.

To find out if your skin may be infected with a type of melanoma (or any other form of skin cancer), you should do a visual examination of your body regularly, and have your skin checked regularly by a medical professional.

How to Look for Melanoma

Know the Signs of Melanoma

To stay aware of your skin’s condition and spot skin cancers early, you will need to know where melanoma occurs and what symptoms to discuss with your doctor. 

Abnormal moles

Before looking for those “hidden” melanomas, first conduct an examination of your exposed skin where the most common forms of skin cancer show up. 

Look at each of your moles to see if:

  • The color has darkened or become inconsistent in shading
  • The shape has become asymmetrical or irregular instead of round and even
  • The edges have become uneven, notched or scalloped
  • The size has increased recently or has become larger than ¼ inch (the size of a pencil eraser)
  • The nature of it is changing, such as showing sudden itching, bleeding or other changes

Other signs specifically related to melanoma

As you study the areas of your skin that do not have moles, you may see other symptoms that can mean you are dealing with skin cancer, and specifically a malignant melanoma:

  • A vertical, brown or black line underneath your toenail
  • Spots or growths that are pinkish-red
  • A new growth or spot that appears where you have had a foot injury
  • A mass that is fast-growing, especially near a place that has once been injured
  • A sore that doesn’t heal, or a sore that heals and then comes back
  • A sore that resembles a diabetic ulcer
  • Skin spots or growths that ache, itch, or bleed

Any of these signs can suggest you may have skin cancer, including melanoma. So if you notice any of them, make an appointment with your physician to have your skin assessed.

“Hidden” Skin Areas to Keep an Eye on

In addition to your moles, you should also check other areas of your skin, specifically looking for anything unusual in places that are harder to see unless you are doing a careful checkup. It is crucial to keep in mind that melanoma can begin anywhere. And since it can spread quickly, you must take the time to look for signs in places that are hard to reach, hard to see, and easy to overlook. This includes:

Your feet

When was the last time you looked closely at your feet? If you are like the average person, you probably have not done so in a while, if ever. While your feet may not be exposed all that often to direct sunlight, melanomas can still show up there. Do a self-check for strange skin patches on:

  • The tops of your feet
  • The sides of your feet, including the sides of your toes
  • The entire soles of your feet, including the bottoms of your toes
  • Between your toes
  • Underneath your toenails

Your hands

While your hands experience a lot of casual sun exposure over your lifetime, it can be easy to overlook them when you do a skin exam. So, be sure to look carefully at:

  • Your palms
  • Your wrists
  • The top of your hands
  • Underneath your fingernails
  • Between your fingers
  • The sides of your hands, including, the sides of your fingers

Your nails

We have briefly mentioned already that you should check your fingernails and toenails for signs of melanoma. Here is what to look for:

  • A brown or black hand in or below the nail
  • Darkened skin next to your nail
  • Nail that is lifting up from the nail bed
  • Nail that has split down the middle
  • A bump or growth underneath the nail

Your head

It may be simple to see a sunburn on your face, yet melanomas can show up on parts of your head that are not as easy to view. (This is why it is wise to have your skin checked regularly by your doctor.) Some areas to be aware of include:

  • The ears, both outer and inner ear
  • The nose, including the lining of your nasal passages
  • The mouth, including lips and the inside of the mouth (it can even form in the throat)
  • The scalp, such as underneath the hair, at the hairline, and around the nape of the neck

Your eyes

Ocular melanoma is not as detectable as other types of melanoma because it tends to start behind the eyes, where it cannot be seen. But you may find yourself having vision symptoms that you should have checked out, including:

  • Floaters in your vision
  • Changes to your eye, such as the pupil is changing shape, or the iris has a growing dark spot
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Blurry vision in one eye

Your genitals

Even your most private areas can become affected by cancerous growths. Typically, this will be a form of cancer known as mucosal melanoma, meaning it develops in your mucous membranes. Because this type of melanoma can be easily confused with other conditions, it may be harder to detect. Any symptoms related to this area of the body should be brought to your doctor’s attention.

Can Skin Cancer Be Cured?

When it is detected and treated in its earliest stages, melanoma and other skin cancers have a very successful treatment prognosis. In later stages, skin cancer is more difficult to address, and if it has spread to other organs, it becomes quite serious. This makes catching melanoma early of great importance to your wellness.

Have Your Skin Checked by the Caring Experts at Midtown Surgical & Skin Institute

While skin cancer can be deadly, it is usually quite treatable when found early. So, the best way to handle skin problems is to address them promptly, before it enters a more advanced stage. Whether you’re concerned about an area of your skin that you need assessed, or whether it’s simply time for your annual skin checkup, our team is here for you! 

At Midtown Surgical & Skin Institute, we provide thorough, personalized care that helps you determine the best path for you as you pursue greater well-being. Contact us to set up a consultation today.

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