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Mucosal melanoma is a rare, life-threatening cancer. Mucosal melanoma accounts for about 1.4% of all melanomas and 0.03% of new cancers.1
Melanomas are tumors that develop when cells called melanocytes grow uncontrollably. These aggressive tumors are usually diagnosed in their advanced stages, which leads to a poor prognosis.
Melanocytes produce the pigment in your skin and mucosa, which lines the inner surfaces of your body. This is why most melanomas are pigmented and appear on the skin and mucosa.
Common locations for mucosal melanoma include:
However, mucosal melanoma can develop in nearly any part of your body with a mucous membrane.
Mucosal melanoma symptoms vary depending on where the tumor develops. By the time most people experience symptoms, the mucosal melanoma is usually advanced.
More than half of oral mucosal melanoma cases are first discovered during a routine dental examination.1
Signs and symptoms may include:
About 80% of sinonasal mucosal melanomas are in the nasal cavity, including the septum and lateral wall of the nose.2
Symptoms are usually indistinguishable from noncancerous nasal diseases, and may include:
Double vision and bulging eyes may occur in advanced stages.3
Unlike skin melanoma, ultraviolet (UV) exposure is not a risk factor for mucosal melanomas. And mucosal melanoma is not related to a family history of melanoma.1
No preventable risk factors for mucosal melanoma have been confirmed.1 However, some evidence suggests cigarette smoking may increase the risk for head and neck mucosal melanomas.7
Certain factors may increase your likelihood of having mucosal melanoma, including:
If your doctor suspects you have mucosal melanoma, they’ll take a biopsy. This involves removing a sample of tissue for laboratory testing.
After they confirm a diagnosis, your doctor may order additional tests to learn more about the stage and severity of the disease. Tests may include:
Surgery is the most effective way to cure mucosal melanoma.1 This involves completely removing the abnormal tissue. However, surgical intervention is difficult in many areas where mucosal melanoma develops.
Tumor regrowth is common. Most people with mucosal melanoma die from the cancer, even if the entire tumor was removed.
If surgery isn’t possible, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both. Alternatively, your doctor may recommend radiation after surgery to reduce the likelihood of tumor regrowth.
Research and clinical trials investigating new drugs offer the possibility of a mucosal melanoma cure. Current treatments that apply to mucosal melanoma include:
Because early diagnosis is so difficult, most people with mucosal melanoma develop incurable metastatic cancer.
Compared to skin melanoma, mucosal melanoma has a very poor prognosis. Five-year survival rates of both types of cancer at the time of diagnosis include:1
Getting regular checkups and dental exams may improve the chances of an early diagnosis. The outlook for mucosal melanoma may improve with further research and the development of new treatments.
Staging for mucosal melanoma isn’t clearly defined because of how rare the disease is. Staging systems vary based on where in the body mucosal melanoma arises.
Head and neck mucosal melanoma uses a simple staging system that can apply to all cases.
A more cohesive staging system will likely emerge as scientists learn more about mucosal melanoma.
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