How melanoma spreads

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Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. One of the reasons it is so deadly is that it is more likely to spread or metastasize from its original site than other forms of skin cancer. But why does it do this? We explore below, but first, let’s look at how it forms.

How melanoma forms

Melanoma begins in melanocytes cells (the cells that create pigment) in the deepest layer of skin, also known as the hypodermic or subcutaneous tissue. When these cells become damaged, mutations can occur and the mutated cells can reproduce themselves rapidly, eventually forming a tumor and taking over surrounding tissues. Melanomas can develop from existing moles or skin growths, but, more commonly, they will start as a new growth.

What is Skin Cancer?

How melanoma spreads throughout the body

When a tumor gets too big, it requires more oxygen and nutrients to survive. This is when the tumor sends out signals that cause new blood vessels to grow into the tumor (a process called angiogenesis), bringing the nutrients and oxygen to it.

After angiogenesis occurs, cancer cells are now able to break off and enter the bloodstream. They can also break off and spread through the lymphatic system (a system that carries fluid throughout the body and is a vital part of the circulatory and immune system).

How melanoma spreads
Example image how melanoma spreads

When this happens, the cancer cells can now settle and take root in a new area of the body. According to the American CancerSociety, three things need to happen in order for the cancer cells to metastasize in a new area.

One: they need to attach to the wall of a blood or lymph vessel and move through it into a new organ.
Two: they need to have the necessary nutrients to grow in the new site.
Three: They must resist attacks from the immune system. 

If the cancer cells manage to do all of these things, then a new tumor will develop. Typically, it will look slightly different from the cancer cells in the original tumor as a result of its journey.

Skin cancer symptoms: what to look out for

Ongoing research

Why exactly the body signals a lack of oxygen in melanoma is a subject under research. A study from the National Human GenomeResearch Institute recently found 40 genes that are connected to proteins that tell the body whether oxygen or nutrients are needed in many types of cancer.

They also discovered 10 genes related to how long it takes melanoma to move from the original tumor to other places in the body. These findings, along with others, can lead to more targeted treatments for melanoma and other cancers.

Skin cancer pictures

Early detection prevents melanoma from spreading

While there are still many mysteries when it comes to why and how melanoma develops, it is certain that the sooner melanoma is discovered, the less it has a chance to spread and become deadly.

That’s why it’s essential to perform regular skin checks and know the symptoms of melanoma so you can catch it early.

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"The melanoma could have been on my arm for years"
Andrew Bartlett
United Kingdom
"The melanoma could have been on my arm for years"
Andrew Bartlett
United Kingdom

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