Metastatic Skin Cancer

Spread of Cancer

Metastatic skin cancer refers to the spread of the original cancer (in the majority of cases a melanoma) to other organs of the body.

The likelihood of non melanomas - like basal cell cancer (BCC) or squamous cell cancer (SCC) - "metastasizing" and spreading to other organs is very small. These are very slow growing cancers and if caught early enough and removed via surgery the chance of being completely cured is about 98%. It's extremely rare for BCC to spread to other parts of the body.

The odds are not so great with melanomas which are left untreated.

Metastatic Melanoma

So just how does a melanoma metastasize? Basically, if it is left untreated it begins to spread into other layers of the skin and the cancer cells break away from the melanoma and spread to the lymph nodes. Once in the lymph nodes the cancerous cells use the lymphatic system to transport themselves around the body. The brain, liver and bones are the most common places to find metastases.

If a melanoma is detected early and investigations show that it is very thin, surgery can offer a cure. However if the melanoma has started to reach other layers of the skin and has invaded the lymph nodes (this is known as Stage 3 melanoma) it becomes more difficult, though not impossible, to treat.

If tests show that the melanoma is confined to the lymph nodes, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and removal of the nodes can be successful both in halting the spread of the cancer and in providing a complete cure.

But if the melanoma reaches Stage 4 - and this is the stage known as metastatic melanoma - it has invaded other organs of the body and you are then looking at treating the cancer rather than curing it.

Methods of treatment have moved on dramatically over the last few years; however it is generally recognized within the medical profession that metastatic skin cancer is one of the most difficult types to treat.

The usual cancer therapies such as chemo and radiotherapy will, in the majority of cases, prolong life rather than offer a cure. In fact the statistics are sobering - around 66% of people diagnosed with metastatic melanoma usually die within five years.

Unfortunately a melanoma that has metastasized may not be discovered until long after the original melanoma has been removed. And then it can be confused with a cancer that has developed within an organ rather than one that has spread from the melanoma.

The majority of deaths from melanoma are usually caused when the disease spreads to the brain.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Nowadays, thanks to people being more aware of the dangers of the sun and also what to look out for on their skin, half the melanomas discovered are thin with just a one per cent chance of metastasizing.

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