According to the American Cancer Society, approximately one out of every five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lives. Melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancers and its rate of incidence has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Although highly curable in its early stages, melanoma takes an aggressive turn for the worse if not diagnosed in time. In the advanced stages, the survival rate for melanoma is dramatically reduced from 99% to 15%.
Causes of Melanoma
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays clearly plays a role in melanoma, especially in people with fair skin. Exposure to UV rays comes from the sun as well as from tanning beds. Getting many sunburns, especially blistering sunburns as a child or teenager, raises the risk of getting melanoma.
Early Detection of Melanoma is Key to Survival
When detected early, melanoma is highly treatable. Because melanoma rates continue to rise, dermatologists recommend that everyone learn the warning signs of melanoma. A change in the shape, color, or size of a mole can be a sign of melanoma. Other changes to watch for include a mole that becomes painful or begins to bleed or itch. Performing skin self-exams can help you find skin changes that could be an early melanoma. In addition to performing self-exams, the American Cancer Society also recommends annual skin checks be performed by a board-certified dermatologist.
The Warning Signs of Melanoma
Melanomas show up in many shapes and sizes but all share one key trait – they tend to look different from your other moles. Dermatologists often tell their patients to look for the “ugly duckling” when performing self-exams.
What to Do if You Have a Warning Sign
If you notice a spot or mole on your skin that has any of the ABCDE characteristics, make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible. The dermatologist should perform a complete skin exam to look at your moles and new growths.
Skin Biopsies are Key to Proper Diagnosis
If your dermatologist finds a mole or growth that looks like melanoma or another type of skin cancer, the dermatologist should perform a skin biopsy to that area and send the biopsy to a lab for analysis. A biopsy is the only way to tell whether a patient has melanoma or another type of skin cancer. The biopsy results may also indicate what stage the cancer is in.
Additional Tests Used to Diagnose Melanoma
Knowing the stage of the cancer is extremely important as each stage requires different treatment. If the stage cannot be determined by the lab during biopsy, then the dermatologist may refer you to another doctor for more tests. You may need additional tests such as x-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or a PET scan. Sometimes a surgical procedure known as a sentinel lymph node biopsy is necessary to identify the stage. By removing one or a few of these lymph nodes, a doctor can tell whether the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Treatment of Melanoma
Treatment often starts with complete surgical removal of the melanoma and normal-looking skin around it. This is called “taking margins” and helps ensure that all of the cancer cells are removed. When the melanoma is detected early (Stage 0, or in situ), this may be the only treatment that is required. At this stage, the cure rate with surgical removal is nearly 100%.
If the cancer has spread beyond the skin (Stages I-IV), then more aggressive treatment is required. Depending on the stage, necessary treatment may include more surgery to remove the tumor, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The cure rate decreases as the stage of melanoma increases. Tragically, the 5-year survival rate for the most advanced stage of melanoma (Stage IV) is only 15%.
A Misdiagnosis of Melanoma Can be Deadly
The earlier the melanoma is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance for survival is for the patient. If a dermatologist or other doctor neglected to biopsy a mole and send it for analysis, a treatable melanoma can rapidly metastasize and become life threatening.
Medical Errors Leading to a Delay in Diagnosis
In delayed diagnosis cases involving melanoma, the central legal issue involves the physician’s departure from recognized standards of care in identifying risk factors, symptoms, and the need for further testing or screening.
Symptoms that should alert physicians of possible melanoma include:
- Asymmetrical moles, blemishes or lesions
- Large brownish spots with darker speckles
- Moles that bleed or change color, size or feel
- Small lesions with an irregular border and portions that appear red, white, blue or blue-black
- Dark lesions on the palms, soles, fingertips, or toes
Medical errors that may result in a delay in the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma are:
- Failure to identify and remove a possibly cancerous growth
- Failure to recommend a biopsy or other tests when growths are removed
- Failure to properly follow up on the results of a biopsy
- Failure to appropriately diagnose the type of skin cancer
- Failure to correctly interpret the pathological findings of the biopsy tissue sample
- Failure to refer the patient to an oncologist for treatment
Timing is Everything
Living with a cancer diagnosis is never easy. However, living with a late-stage cancer that could have been prevented is particularly devastating. If you believe that a doctor’s negligence has caused you or a loved one to suffer from late stage melanoma, the medical malpractice attorneys at The Mabrey Firm, P.C. are here to help. Contact us today for you free consultation.