More Than the Skin Youre In: A Look at Non-Cutaneous Melanomas

Did you know that melanoma isn’t just skin cancer? It can also develop in the eyes (ocular melanoma) and in the mucous membranes of the body (mucosal melanoma).
BY Rebecca Bernaski
PUBLISHED March 06, 2017
When you hear the word “melanoma” most of us instantly think of suspicious moles on the skin or the dangers of indoor tanning beds. But, did you know that melanoma can also develop in other areas of the body?

“Melanoma does not discriminate. It can occur virtually anywhere on the body and it doesn’t care about your age, race or gender,” said Shelby Moneer, director of education at the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF).

Melanoma of the skin, known as cutaneous melanoma, is the deadliest type of skin cancer. However, melanoma is not just skin cancer. It can also develop in the eyes (ocular melanoma) and in the mucous membranes of the body (mucosal melanoma).

Ocular and mucosal melanomas differ from  melanoma of the skin because they are not linked to UV exposure at this time. In addition, there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between family history or other risk factors. But the lack of identifiable culprits doesn’t mean lack of diagnoses.

“Ocular and mucosal melanoma account for approximately 2,000 and 1,000 of all melanoma diagnoses in the United States each year, respectively,” explained Moneer. “These types of melanoma are quite serious, often diagnosed late and treatment options are somewhat limited.”

Mucosal melanoma can appear in any part of mucosal membranes, which can be found lining the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urogenital tracts within our bodies. It most commonly originates from the nasal passages, the mouth, the genitals and the gastrointestinal tract.

Our eyes, as with many areas of our bodies, are very intricate. There are three areas where ocular melanoma can occur: the uvea, choroid and conjunctiva. The uvea is an area of the back of the eye composed of the choroid, iris and ciliary body. Uveal melanoma can form in any of these areas. When melanoma occurs in the iris, or the front colored part of the eye, it is called an iris melanoma. If the melanoma forms in the ciliary body, or back part of the eye, it is called a ciliary body melanoma.

A common subtype of uveal melanoma, choroidal melanoma forms in the layer of blood vessels (the choroid) beneath the retina.

Conjunctival melanoma often appears as a raised tumor with little or no color. As a very rare melanoma, it most commonly occurs in the mucous membrane that covers the outer surface of the eyeball known as the bulba conjunctiva.

While these forms of melanoma are rare that doesn’t mean that there is a lack of support. In fact, the MRF offers a wide array of resources like private Facebook groups, online patient forums and treatment center finders. It also has virtual support groups and a phone buddy program.

So, what can you do to prevent non-cutaneous melanoma? According to Moneer, awareness and communication are key. “Protect your skin, know your body and know what is normal for YOU,” advised Moneer. “If you notice something new, different or strange, bring it to the attention of your doctor right away. When melanoma is caught early, your chances of survival greatly increase.”
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