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Skin cancer, including melanoma, is a startling diagnosis that can bring on a flood of questions. The key is to tackle the most important question first: who will care for me… all of me? Answer this question well and your experience becomes infinitely more manageable.

At CHI Memorial Rees Skillern Institute, the treatment of melanoma extends far beyond the disease. Cancer affects every aspect of your being and this fact shapes our approach to your care. When you come to CHI Memorial, you are not “a cancer patient.” You are you – a unique individual that deserves our very best. At CHI Memorial, “our best” means the highest level of clinical expertise, the most advanced technology, and the fullness of our hearts. It’s a difference that our patients feel every day. 

In 2018, CHI Memorial's melanoma program earned the Melanoma Hope Network Center of Excellence designation. The program is one of only 17 centers in the country and the only one in Tennessee. This designation recognizes melanoma treatment centers and physicians that offer exceptional care, knowledge and compassion to patients diagnosed with advanced melanoma.

Understanding melanoma

Melanoma is a serious diagnosis because it is more likely to spread than other types of skin cancer. Melanoma can affect people of all ages. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in people under the age of 30.

Melanoma most typically appears in one of the following ways:

  • An irregular brown, black or red spot on the skin
  • An existing mole that changes color, shape or size

Most melanomas are “cutaneous” – which means they develop on the skin. In men, they most commonly appear on the chest or back. In women, the legs are most affected. Melanomas also frequently appear on the neck or face.

If melanoma spreads to other parts of the body (or metastasizes), it is known as metastatic melanoma. Typically, this type of melanoma first appears in the lymph nodes and then spreads into other organs.

Melanoma symptoms

Melanoma typically starts as a growth or lesion that differs from the surrounding skin. Often, these growths are not cancerous at first, but can develop into cancer over time. This is why regular skin checks are so important. Melanoma can be cured if it is discovered and treated early.

There are four key warning signs of melanoma:

  • A mole or dark area with an irregular shape, or two different looking halves
  • A mole or dark area with borders that are blurred, rough or notched
  • A mole with uneven color
  • A mole that is larger than ¼ inch (the size of a pencil eraser)

Additional symptoms may include:

  • Sores that do not heal
  • Pigment, redness or swelling that spreads to the surrounding skin
  • Itchiness, tenderness or pain
  • Moles that change in texture, ooze or bleed

Not all melanomas develop from moles and symptoms can vary, so it is very important to discuss changes in your skin with your doctor.

While many melanomas develop in areas exposed to the sun, this is not always the case. In addition to examining your legs, torso, arms, face and neck, it is important to look at the areas between your toes, underneath nails, palms of the hands and soles of the feet, genitals and even the eyes.

Melanoma risk factors

Fair skin
Melanoma appears much more frequently in Caucasians, especially people with skin that burns or freckles easily.

Most moles do not become cancerous but the presence of several moles can increase the risk of melanoma.

Family history
If you have had a parent or sibling with melanoma, you are at increased risk.

Sun exposure
A history of sunburns, particularly during childhood, or excessive exposure to sunlight, may increase your chances of developing melanoma.

Repeated exposure to unnatural sources of ultra-violet light such as tanning booths can increase melanoma risk.

Melanoma treatment

May be prescribed before or after surgery. These treatments use drugs to boost the body’s immune system or to destroy cancer cells. There are several different types of medications used in the treatment of melanoma, depending on your individual case.

Targets cancer cells with focused beams of high-energy radiation. Radiation treatment may be called for following surgery to ensure any remaining cancerous cells are destroyed.

To remove the cancerous cells is the primary treatment path for melanoma. If the cancer has not spread beyond the skin, a wide local excision may be performed to remove the cancer and some of the surrounding healthy tissue. A lymphadenectomy is required when melanoma has metastasized to the lymph nodes. In some cases, a skin graft or plastic surgery may be used to repair the surgery site.

Support at every step

At CHI Memorial Rees Skillern Cancer Institute, anyone diagnosed with cancer has access to a nurse navigator, a designated point of contact who can educate you on the disease process, answer questions, help you prepare physically and emotionally for treatment, provide resources and connect you with other modes of support throughout this journey.  These include access to dietitians, clinical social workers, massage therapists, and chaplains who focus on spiritual care and advance care planning. Visit CHI Memorial Center for Cancer Support or call (423) 495-7778 for more information. 

Ron Baldwin shares his story as a 5-time melanoma survivor.