Oral melanoma is a rare type of melanoma. Most melanoma development is triggered by unprotected skin exposure to natural and artificial UV (ultraviolet) light. Oral, however, is not among the melanomas caused by UV rays. It’s a type of mucosal melanoma, which develops within mucus membranes. Areas within which mucosal melanomas are found include:
- Respiratory tract
- Nasal cavity
- Oral cavity
- Gastrointestinal tract
- Transitional zone of anal canal (the line where normal skin meets the mucous membrane)
- Genitourinary tract
- Female genitals
Additionally, oral melanoma accounts for 1% of all melanomas, and is most common in Asians. 80% of it occurs in the palate and upper gums. It usually affects those who are over 40 years old and is rare in people under 20. Its color ranges from dark brown to blue-black, but 5-35% can be white, red or mucosa-colored. Oral melanoma is more aggressive than other oral cancers, as well as cutaneous melanomas.
Currently, medical science cannot pin down the exact cause(s) of oral melanoma, though it does have theories as to some potential ones. Among these are dentures, tobacco use and exposure to environmental chemicals.
What Should I be Looking Out For?
DermNet New Zealand provides a convenient list of what to keep an eye out for with regard to oral melanoma:
- Discoloration in the mouth
- Painless bleeding lump
- Ill-fitting dentures
- Nasal obstruction
- Nose bleeds
- Loss of smell
How Does it Compare to Typical Melanoma?
Like typical melanoma, oral melanoma can be cured if it’s diagnosed and treated quickly enough. However, that’s usually not the case. Oral melanoma is initially asymptomatic, so the issue is that it’s often unnoticed, ignored or simply dismissed as nothing of consequence.
As a result, by the time many cases are diagnosed they’re already too far advanced. This underlines the importance of being aware of the symptoms and what to look for.
These photographs depict 3 different manifestations of oral melanoma:
Oral squamous cell cancer is much more common than oral melanoma and is much more serious than squamous cell cancer on the skin.
The bottom line is to include your mouth during self-skin exams and see your dentist or dermatologist if you notice a bump, discoloration (including white), or anything unusual.
* Additional source articles: Dermnetnz.org, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, oralcancerfoundation.org