Head & Neck Melanoma

Overview

Melanoma is a kind of cancer that affects the pigment cells of your skin. Although melanoma can occur on any part of the skin, about 30% shows up on the head or neck. 

A person with any of the following traits has a greater risk of developing melanoma: 

  • Blonde or red hair
  • Fair skin
  • Numerous moles
  • A family history of melanoma
  • Lengthy exposure to sunlight
  • Frequent tan/sunburn in the past
  • Use of tanning booths, beds or lamps

Symptoms

Usually, head and neck melanoma is found in spots or moles on the skin. Any changes in existing moles or new skin growths may be symptoms of melanoma. To make it easier to spot changes, use this simple ABCDE system:

  • A – Asymmetry: Look for a mole whose shape is irregular, where one half of it doesn’t match the other half.
  • B – Border: Look for borders or edges of the mole that are uneven.
  • C – Color: Look for changes in the mole’s color, especially if it’s uneven. For example, instead of one shade, the mole is a mix of shades of brown, tan or black.
  • D – Diameter: Look for a mole that’s large or has grown. Be suspicious of a mole if the diameter is more than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).
  • E – Evolution: Look for changes in moles. Has it gotten bigger or changed shape? Has it been bleeding? Is it itchy or tender?

Diagnosis

First, you’ll meet with your doctor for a physical exam. You’ll talk about your symptoms and your doctor may remove a small sample of mole tissue to examine (a biopsy). If the biopsy is positive for melanoma, your doctor may order imaging tests, such as CT, MRI or PET scans and X-rays. These tests help determine if the melanoma is contained or has spread to other areas.
 
Melanoma treatment depends on a number of factors, including how thick it is, if it has spread to the lymph nodes and what stage the cancer is in. Your doctor may recommend surgery combined with additional treatments to remove the melanoma and any lymph nodes that may also contain cancer. 
 
Head and neck melanoma is grouped into four stages. Stage I, II, and III melanoma are often treated with surgery. Stage IV melanoma may also be treated with surgery, but additional treatments may include:
 
  • Immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to work harder and smarter to attack cancer cells. Man-made immune system proteins may be prescribed to help the body fight the cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy, in which multiple narrow radiation beams (light energy) precisely target the cancer.
  • Vaccine trials, which are given to people who have been diagnosed with cancer to help boost the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.

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