With summer officially here, sunscreen is likely being used by the gallon as people enjoy North Carolina’s great weather and outdoor attractions. Sunscreen is critical in helping to prevent sunburn and ultimately skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer.
The American Cancer Society predicts that more than 3.3 million people will be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer this year. While basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common, research shows that melanoma accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths.
Early detection is critical for all cancers and melanoma is no exception. When caught in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is around 97 percent. Melanoma, however, is one of the most metabolically active tumors and is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to lymph nodes and other body systems.
Healthcare providers often work with radiologists to help stage and evaluate treatment for patients who have been diagnosed with melanoma because the cancer has such a high rate of recurrence. Research shows that once a person has one primary melanoma, they are 200 times more likely than the general population to have a second primary melanoma. The second melanoma will most likely occur within two years of the first diagnosis.
Medical imaging can help detect the possible spread of melanoma to lymph nodes or other organs, determine if treatment is working, and look for recurrence after treatment. PET/CT, a scan that combines positron emission tomography and computerized tomography, is an extremely useful tool for determining if melanoma has spread. Patients are injected with a small amount of radioactive sugar that travels through the body, then scanned after 60-90 minutes. PET images reveal areas of increased metabolic activity which may indicate the presence of cancer. This information, used in combination with CT images,which detail the organs and bones of the same area, allows a radiologist to see if melanoma has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body like the liver, lungs or bones.
PET/CT can also be used to determine if a second primary melanoma is present, potentially in a hidden area such as the scalp that could have escaped detection despite a thorough physical exam by the patient’s referring physician.
Some melanoma patients may need regular PET/CT scans to ensure that a localized tumor has not become widespread or to find out if therapy is working appropriately. A whole-body PET/CT scan serves as a single head-to-toe exam that can search the entire body and help determine if the cancer has spread or recurred.
If you or someone you know is diagnosed with a melanoma, it’s important to talk with your primary care doctor, oncologist, or surgeon to determine if and when it’s appropriate to include medical imaging, particularly a PET/CT scan, as part of your care. Our body imaging radiologists are experts in interpreting and diagnosing melanoma and its potential spread as well as working with area providers to determine the best possible treatment plans for patients.