Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from our melanocytes, the melanin producing cells located in the bottom layer of our skin. Unfortunately, it is also the most deadly form of skin cancer killing 1,200 Australians every year.
On average, 30 Australians are diagnosed with melanoma every day. When a cancer is first diagnosed, it must be categorized so appropriate treatment can be provided. To achieve this, a biopsy of the lesion is taken by your GP, dermatologist or surgeon and the results used to determine which ‘stage’ the cancer is in.
The properties that doctors look for are known as TNM principles, which are as follows:
T: The size/location of the tumor or how much it has grown into nearby tissues.
N: Describes whether the cancer has been found in the lymph nodes and even how many of these lymph nodes contain cancer.
Lymph nodes are small oval shaped organs which are distributed throughout our bodies and are a key part of our immune system.
M: Has the cancer metastasized to other parts of the body? Metastasis is where a cancer spreads to another body part or organ not directly connected to the cancer’s origin.
Each of these factors combined determines the stage of the cancer. The TNM factors have to be considered directly in relation to the specific cancer being treated, meaning the staging for each cancer is unique. In general, the cancer stages go from 1 to 4, however some cancers such as melanoma also have a stage 0. Many melanoma stage categorizations can be very detailed and specific, so this is just a general overview:
Note: A melanoma with an ulceration is considered more dangerous and is likely to be staged more maturely.
Stage 0: The lesion is limited to the top layer of the skin and can be surgically removed fairly easily
Stage 1: The melanoma is between 0-2mm thick. The melanoma has still not metastasized and/or spread to the lymph nodes. The lesion is surgically removed.
Stage 2: The tumor is between 1-4mm thick with or without ulceration. The lesion is surgically removed and potentially any nearby lymph nodes.
Stage 3: The melanoma has spread to one or more lymph nodes or into the blood stream. Other small tumors may be found under the skin no more than 2 centimeters away from where the cancer first started.
Stage 4: The cancer has metastasized
Overall, the earlier the stage upon diagnosis, the more easily it can be treated, as it is smaller and more contained. This is why it is so important to complete regular spot checks at home using the ABC’s of melanoma and to see a doctor if you see anything suspicious.