May is Melanoma Awareness Month, and you are probably wondering why we are talking about Melanoma Awareness Month on our dental blog? Well, melanoma, which is the most dangerous and deadly form of skin cancer, can also occur in the mouth.
What Is Melanoma?
Malignant melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins when melanocytes, which are the cells that produce darker pigments in the skin, mutate and become cancerous. There are several factors that may increase the risk of getting melanoma, including having fair skin and light eyes, numerous moles, a family history of melanoma, and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and/or tanning beds. Exposure to UV light is thought to be the cause of most melanomas on the skin.
Even though melanoma accounts for less than 1% of skin cancer cases, it accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths. An estimated 87,110 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2017. An estimated 9,730 people will die of malignant melanoma in 2017.
Oral Malignant Melanoma
While malignant melanoma mainly occurs on the skin, it can develop in the oral cavity. Oral malignant melanomas are extremely rare, accounting for only 0.2-8% of all melanoma cancers found on the body, and less than 1% of all cancers found in the mouth. The most common locations oral melanoma are found are the palate (roof of the mouth) and maxillary gingiva (gum tissue on the upper part of the mouth).
Unlike most cases of melanoma of the skin, oral melanoma is not considered to be caused by UV exposure. Additionally, there are no obvious identified risk factors, such as poor oral hygiene, alcohol consumption, smoking, or even family history.
Although oral malignant melanomas are rare, they tend to be more aggressive than melanoma found on the skin and often prove to be fatal.
Signs of Oral Malignant Melanoma
Oral malignant melanomas do not usually have symptoms in the early stages. They may appear as a dark spot or patch on the gum tissue. The color of the spots can vary from dark brown to blue-black, however white, red and lesions the color of the oral tissue have been seen. The lesions may be flat or elevated.
Pain, bleeding, and ulceration are rarely seen until late in the disease, which by that point prognosis and survival rate is very poor.
Diagnosis of oral melanoma is often difficult due to the absence of symptoms in the early stages and they can be confused with a number of asymptomatic, benign, pigmented lesions.
This is why getting yearly oral cancer screenings with Dr. Griffin, is so important. Any suspicious, pigmented lesion of the oral cavity for which no direct cause can be found requires further examination and possibly biopsy. Even though oral malignant melanoma is very rare you can never be too careful.
If you have spot you would like Dr. Griffin to look at, please call our office at 972-242-2155. Early and detailed examinations for oral malignant melanoma are critical for improving the survival rate.