I found an article that notes that although 99 out of 100 cases of skin cancer has a lesion that is found on the skin; there is a possibility that you could have skin cancer without a visible lesion. How? As Dr. Jeremy Davis, a clinical instructor and surgeon at UCLA Health explains, “It’s not common, but there are situations where your immune system takes take of the primary mole or skin lesion even though the cancer itself has metastasized.”
First, that’s freaking scary… Second, how the heck do you know you have skin cancer then? The article goes on to list the symptoms you can’t see.
So, if you have lumps beneath the skin, specifically where your lymph nodes are, you should get checked. Now, your lymph nodes could be swollen for a variety of reasons. Every time I get really sick (usually once every 3 years), my lymph nodes in my neck swell up and make me look like I’m carrying marbles around in my neck (it’s highly attractive). Lymph nodes usually swell due to infection, illness or even stress. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re walking around harboring a case of hidden skin cancer.
What’s next on the list? Abdominal pain… I’ve mentioned before, but melanoma likes to go to the lungs, brain, and liver when it spreads. If you have pain in the upper right quadrant, it could mean that melanoma has spread to your liver. Or it could mean you have gallstones, ate too much spicy Mexican food last night, should stop drinking so much on the weekends or a myriad of other things. (Pain on the lower right quadrant is likely appendicitis so you probably should go to the doctor to get that checked out.)
The third thing on the list is “breathing problems”. As noted above, melanoma likes the lungs as much as the liver. So if you’re short of breath or have a persistent cough, you could be in trouble. Or, more likely, you have asthma or bronchitis or even horrible allergies. Heck, being overweight or out of shape can give you breathing problems.
Ok, next is achy joints. According to the article, melanoma may spread to your bones. But of course, you should see a doctor to rule out arthritis or inflammatory diseases or even psoriasis for your aches and pains before you stress about cancer in your bones.
Fifth on the list is blurry vision. So, some backstory. Melanoma is cancer of the pigment-producing parts of your body. Most of the time, people think it means skin; but melanocytes are also found in your eyes (unless you’re albino). Melanocytes make your eyes whatever color the irises are. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can’t see melanoma in the eye ordinarily when you look into a mirror. And typically, you don’t have any symptoms. So, the blurry vision thing might mean that you’ve got eye melanoma growing but it’s on the bigger side. Naturally, of course, there are a host of other reasons why your vision may be blurred. Things like aging, staring at a computer or phone screen too long, and a thousand other things that do not mean melanoma. If you’re experiencing consistent blurry vision, go get your eyes checked – but mostly because you need glasses or contacts.
Where else do melanocytes hang out besides your skin and eyes? Well, in your digestive system – which leads us to the next symptom on the list – gut problems. A whole host of issues in your belly could be a signal of hidden melanoma. Or, you know, it could mean anything else ranging from the aforementioned spicy Mexican food the night before, menstrual issues, lack of fiber or too much fiber in your diet, complications from medications, or anything else you can think of.
And finally, headaches… Apparently your brain has melanocytes too (who knew?) and therefore, you could have melanoma if you get headaches, seizures, or cognitive problems. Or, you could have migraines, seasonal allergies, tension, benign brain tumors, or epilepsy. Obviously, if you have persistent headaches or seizures or difficulties with coordination or memory, you should get checked out.
But this list drives me freaking crazy. First of all, the likelihood that any one of these is from a hidden melanoma is absurdly low. There is a much more prosaic reason why any of those symptoms would occur – especially on their own. This list is more likely to alarm people than actually do any good. And the other reason this list irritates me is that I have all of these symptoms right now. And I have a history of melanoma so it’s not like I’m being hypochondriac reading this list and thinking to myself, “well, damn that’s another checkmark”. But it lists a bunch of nebulous symptoms that most people, melanoma patient or not, will experience. Sometimes all at the same time.
So, should you read the list and decide that you are part of the unlucky 1%? Absolutely not. If you do have all of these symptoms, you might want to go to a doctor to see if you can get some relief. And you should be getting an annual skin check. But definitely don’t use a vague list of symptoms to self-diagnose hidden skin cancer…