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Malignant Melanoma

Overview :

Melanocytes are derived from a structure in the human embryo called the neural crest. They are distributed in the epidermis and thus are found throughout the skin. They produce a brown pigment known as melanin and are responsible for racial variation in skin color as well as the color of moles. Malignant degeneration of the melanocyte gives rise to the tumor known as melanoma, which has four subtypes. These are: superficial spreading, nodular, lentigo maligna, and acral lentiginous melanomas, accounting for 70%, 15% to 30%, 4% to 10%, and 2% to 8% of cases, respectively. Malignant melanoma may develop anywhere on the body. In men, it is most common on the trunk. In women, it is most common on the back or legs. The subtype also may influence where the tumor develops; lentigo melanoma is more common on the face while acral lentiginous melanoma is more common on the palms of the hand, soles of the feet, or in the nail beds.

The locally invasive characteristic of this tumor involves vertical penetration through the skin and into the dermis and subcutaneous (under-the-skin) tissues of the malignant melanocytes. With the exception of the nodular variety of melanoma, there is often a phase of radial or lateral growth associated with these tumors. Since it is the vertical growth that characterizes the malignancy, the nodular variant of melanoma carries the worst prognosis. Fortunately, the superficial spreading type is most common.

The primary tumor begins in the skin, often from the melanocytes of a pre-existing mole. Once it becomes invasive, it may progress beyond the site of origin to the regional lymph nodes or travel to other organ systems in the body and become systemic in nature.

Lymph is the clear, protein-rich fluid that bathes the cells throughout our body. Lymph will work its way back to the bloodstream via small channels known as lymphatics. Along the way, the lymph is filtered through cellular stations known as nodes, thus they are called lymph nodes. Nearly all organs in the body have a primary lymph node group filtering the tissue fluid, or lymph, that comes from that organ. Different areas of the skin have different primary nodal stations. For the leg, they are in the groin. For the arm, the armpit or axilla. For the face, it is the neck. Depending where on the torso the tumor develops, it may drain into one groin or armpit, or both.

Cancer, as it invades in its place of origin, may also work its way into blood vessels. If this occurs, it provides yet another route for the cancer to spread to other organs of the body. When the cancer spreads elsewhere in the body, it has become systemic in extent and the tumor growing elsewhere is known as a metastasis.

Untreated malignant melanoma follows a classic progression. It begins and grows locally, penetrating vertically. It may be carried via the lymph to the regional nodes, known as regional metastasis. It may go from the lymph to the bloodstream or penetrate blood vessels, directly allowing it a route to go elsewhere in the body. When systemic disease or distant metastasis occur, melanoma commonly involves the lung, brain, liver, or occasionally bone.

Sun exposure definitely increases the risk of developing melanoma, particularly in older males. The melanocytes are part of the integument's photoprotective mechanism; in response to sunlight, they produce melanin that has a protective role from the sun's ultraviolet rays. For Caucasians, the amount of melanin present in the skin is directly related to sun exposure. However, it is not so much the total sun exposure that seems important, rather it is the history of sunburn, (especially if severe or at an early age), that correlates with the increased risk. On this basis populations of fair-skinned people living in areas of high sun exposure such as the southwest United States or Australia are subject to increased risk. Malignant melanoma also affects non-Caucasians'though sun exposure probably does not play a role'at a rate of 10% that of Caucasians. The most common form of melanoma in African Americans is acral lentiginous melanoma.

Malignant melanoma may arise in the skin anywhere on the body. It is estimated that 50%-70% develop spontaneously while the remainder start in a pre-existing mole.

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