Stony Brook Medicine Health News

The Stages of Melanoma and Skin Cancer Prevention

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, but when it’s detected early, it’s highly treatable.

Our skin serves as a trusted armor, serving as a protective barrier against pathogens and toxins. But it’s not immune to risks, especially when faced with the harmful effects of UV radiation from the sun. 

Today, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults and in 2024, over 100,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with this serious type of skin cancer. 

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in cells called melanocytes, which produce pigment. These cells can become cancerous, forming malignant growths found on the skin that may develop from an unusual mole or as a new lesion. 

Early detection of melanoma is crucial, as it can spread to other parts of the body if not addressed promptly. Regular skin checks and awareness of changes in moles are essential in identifying potential warning signs.

Melanoma Warning Signs

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, but when it’s detected early, it’s highly treatable. It’s important that you know your skin and existing moles, and perform self-exams every month. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, but is most common on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head, and neck. It can also present in unusual locations such as the nails, scalp, feet, or ears.  

If you see any of these warning signs, called the “ABCDEs of Melanoma,” show them to your healthcare provider right away:

  • Asymmetry: Moles that have an asymmetrical appearance
  • Border: A mole that has blurry and/or jagged edges
  • Color: A mole that has more than one color
  • Diameter: Moles with a diameter larger than a pencil eraser (6 mm or 1/4 inch)
  • Evolution: A mole that has gone through changes in size, shape, or color

Melanomas are most often dark in color, but may also have a variety of colors or shades, irregular borders or lack of uniform appearance. If you notice any change in the appearance of a mole or develop other symptoms, such as burning, itching or bleeding, contact a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible for evaluation. Often a skin cancer screening and/or biopsy is performed to rule out a malignancy or properly identify and diagnose the issue.

People who don’t have any history of skin cancer should have a total body skin examination annually by a physician. 

How Fast Does Melanoma Spread?

When left untreated, melanoma can spread rapidly. Its speed depends on various factors, including the stage of detection. In the early stages, melanoma may remain confined to the skin’s outer layer, which is why doing self-exams for early detection is critical

As melanoma advances, the risk of it spreading to other areas of the body increases. The key to slowing down this progression lies in paying attention to warning signs and seeking medical attention is you notice anything concerning. Early detection will significantly improve your prognosis. 

The Stages of Melanoma

Melanoma spreads in four distinct stages, each describing how much cancer is in your body. 

  • Stage 0: Known as “melanoma in situ,” in this stage the cancer is confined to the outermost layer of your skin and has not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 1: The main cancerous tumor is no more than 2 millimeters thick and there are no signs of spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 2: The main tumor may be thicker than 4 millimeters and there are no signs of spread of other parts of the body.
  • Stage 3: The tumor can be any thickness and has spread to nearby lymph nodes and/or very small areas of nearby skin.
  • Stage 4: The most advanced stage, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, brain, and spinal cord. 

Keep in mind that clinical melanoma staging is complex and each person’s experience is unique. Ask your doctor to explain your specific diagnosis in a way you fully understand. 

Melanoma Treatment 

Melanoma treatment aims to eliminate or control cancer cells. The choice of treatment is personalized and depends on factors like the stage of melanoma, the patient’s overall health, and the specific characteristics of the cancer cells.

Surgical excision that removes the cancerous tissue is the primary method for the treatment of melanomas. Additional treatments may include immunotherapy, which targets the body’s immune system to combat cancer cells, and targeted therapy, which focuses on specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells. Chemotherapy, although less common, might be considered in certain cases. 

Regular follow-ups and ongoing monitoring are crucial to track progress and address any potential recurrence. Typically, patients diagnosed with melanoma are seen by a dermatologist every three months for the first year, every six months during years two through five, and annually thereafter. 

How to Prevent Melanoma 

Skin cancer is one of the more preventable types of cancer with more than 90 percent caused by excessive exposure to the sun. 

Follow these sun safety practices to significantly reduce your risk of melanoma and other skin cancers:

  • Seek shade and avoid direct sun exposure from 10am-4pm, when UV radiation is the strongest
  • Wear broad spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen, with SPF 40 or higher
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off
  • Wear protective clothing and sunglasses while in the sun
  • Avoid tanning beds 

Don’t forget to visit your physician for a total body skin examination once annually and perform your own self-screen on a daily basis. 

Skin cancer awareness with Dr. Adam Korzenko
  • Adam Korzenko, MD
    Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology

    Dr. Adam Korzenko is a dermatologist who graduated from Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine. Over the past two decades, Dr. Korzenko has helped grow Stony Brook's cutaneous oncology program by applying cutting edge technology and research to a multidisciplinary approach.

This article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature. Always consult your healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance and treatment.