Skin cancers are the most common type of cancer in the world, with an estimated 1 in 5 Americans developing some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. Detected early, most skin cancers can be treated and cured.
Some types of skin cancer, like melanoma, are more aggressive and have the potential to spread more quickly than others. Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that occurs when melanocytes (the cells that produce skin pigment) grow out of control. Left untreated, the cancer can metastasize, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body. But just how fast does melanoma spread, and what is the prognosis at each stage?
Board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon Dr. Michael Montuno explains what patients need to know about melanoma, including the different types, how it spreads, prevention tips, and treatments.
Types of Melanoma
There are many different types and subtypes of melanoma that can spread at different rates. These types are usually grouped into three main categories:
- Cutaneous (skin) melanoma. Melanomas that occur on the skin. They can appear as moles, colorless bumps, or patches of dark skin. Some forms of cutaneous melanoma are very aggressive.
- Ocular (eye) melanoma. A type of melanoma that occurs in different parts of the eye, including the iris, inside of the eyelid, and beneath the retina. Some common symptoms and signs include blurred vision, dark spots, or a pupil that changes shape.
- Mucosal melanoma. This type can occur on different mucous membranes inside the body and often can’t be detected by sight. Mucosal melanomas are very rare and scientists are still researching how they develop.
Some types of melanoma, including rare subtypes, can spread very quickly—but each patient is different.
That’s why it’s important to talk to a dermatologist about treatment right away if you’ve been diagnosed. Getting skin cancer treatment as soon as possible can increase your chances of survival, no matter what type you’ve been diagnosed with.
How Fast Melanoma Spreads
Some forms of melanoma can spread quickly, though the exact timeline will depend on your individual health situation. The timeline can be impacted by factors like your age, family history, any underlying medical conditions you may have, as well as what kind of melanoma you have.
During the diagnosis process, your dermatologist will determine what stage your cancer is at. The stage of your melanoma indicates what kind of treatment you’ll need.
- Stage 0. The earliest stage of melanoma; also called melanoma in situ. In this stage, cancerous cells are only on the outer layer of skin. Your doctor may recommend minor surgery to remove the cancerous cells and keep them from spreading.
- Stage I. Cancer cells have begun to spread beneath the skin. The treatment for this stage involves surgery, and a biopsy of nearby lymph nodes may be recommended to check that the cancerous cells haven’t spread any farther.
- Stage II. In this stage, the cancerous cells haven’t spread to other parts of the body, but the cancer is at a high risk of spreading if not treated immediately. Your doctor will recommend surgery, a lymph node biopsy, and may recommend medication or immunotherapy.
- Stage III. The melanoma tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes and is at risk of metastasizing to other parts of the body. At this stage, your doctor will recommend surgery and another type of treatment, like chemotherapy, radiation, or immunotherapy.
- Stage IV. Stage IV is the most serious and difficult to treat form of melanoma. In this stage, the tumor has metastasized to other parts of the body. In addition to surgery, your doctor may suggest aggressive treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, or immunotherapy. In some scenarios, you may even be recommended to take part in a clinical trial.
Melanoma can spread quickly and be difficult to treat at later stages, so it’s important to seek treatment immediately after diagnosis, even if you’re only at Stage 0 or Stage 1.
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Can melanoma come back?
Yes, melanoma can come back in some patients. It’s more likely to return in cases where the original melanoma had already progressed to later stages. It’s also most likely to return in the first 5 years after an original melanoma, though some patients have their skin cancer return even decades after treatment.
It’s vital that you keep an eye on your skin to watch for any changes, as well as see a dermatologist for regular check-ups. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you perform regular self-exams of your skin to check for new skin concerns or any existing moles that change in shape or color.
In addition to self-exams and doctor checkups, there are some other steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
- Wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day, even if it’s cloudy outside
- Stay indoors during peak sunny hours (between 10 am and 4 pm)
- Wear protective clothing, broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses when in the sun
- Don’t use tanning beds
- Have a dermatologist check any moles that change in size, shape, or color
You should follow these prevention tips no matter your age, gender, skin color, or family history of skin cancer.
Don’t Wait—Schedule an Appointment Today
When caught in the early stages, melanoma is a very treatable form of skin cancer. If you have been diagnosed with melanoma, don’t wait to seek treatment—without proper medical attention, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body.
Florida Medical Clinic is home to a skilled team of medical professionals who can identify and treat a wide variety of skin diseases. If you’re worried about anything new or changing on your skin, schedule an appointment with our dermatology department. A dermatologist can refer you to Dr. Michael Montuno, an expert in cutting edge skin cancer treatments like Mohs surgery.
About Michael A. Montuno, MD
A graduate of the University of Florida, Dr. Michael Montuno is a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. He has also trained as a fellow at the TriHealth Good Samaritan Hospital/The Skin Cancer Center in Cincinnati. Dr. Montuno has extensive training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of all forms of skin cancer.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.