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Is Metastatic Melanoma Skin Cancer?

We’re in the middle of skin cancer awareness and melanoma awareness month. Someone asked me the other day if I considered them the same thing. Aren’t all skin cancers, cancer? Technically, yes, but it’s a question that I’ve been trying to answer for over a week. Pulling solely from my own cancer experience, I’ll try my best to explain my stance.

Is metastatic melanoma skin cancer?

Toss in the word ‘metastatic’ and the answer changes for me. This is where I have to separate out melanoma into its own category. For me, it doesn’t feel right to label metastatic melanoma as skin cancer. Sure, melanoma often begins on the skin, but metastatic melanoma is everything but that. For me, it was malignant tumors in my heart, brain, lungs, and underneath my skin on my legs and shoulders. It wasn’t a mole I neglected, but rather one I had removed five years prior and received clear margins.

There are many things that differentiate metastatic melanoma from skin cancer. But listing them all here somehow seems as if I’m comparing my cancer experience to yours and that doesn’t feel right.

Then, the guilt sinks in

I’m conflicted. When I write out my opinions, I start to feel guilty. It feels like I’m contributing to the “just skin cancer” stigma by stating that metastatic melanoma shouldn’t be labeled skin cancer. By trying to differentiate metastatic melanoma, it feels like I’m minimizing skin cancer - while not my intent at all. I feel like our cancer experiences are so vastly different that labeling metastatic melanoma as “skin cancer” over-simplifies it.

But it doesn’t stop there

All of this really got my brain turning. When I was first diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I tried to find some non-profits focused on spreading awareness of melanoma. As you can imagine, there are quite a few and they all focus on the same general theme: prevention. They say things like, “the estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 98 percent.” Or things like “Melanoma is usually curable when detected and treated early.” While those are entirely accurate statements, it, once again, over-simplifies melanoma. These prevention messages make it seem as if regular skin checks are the easy answer (and solution) to a melanoma diagnosis. Labeling it all skin cancer further minimizes it, in my opinion.

Does all this promotion of prevention muddy our perception of skin cancer?

I can’t help but wonder if all the discussion and promotion around prevention gives us a false perception of melanoma and skin cancer. If prevention is so easy, curability must be just as easily attainable, too, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of prevention. And in my experience - I did just that. I’ve never been a sun worshiper. In addition to self-skin checks, I went to the dermatologist religiously. I had countless moles removed and biopsied. And I still got metastatic melanoma. The kind of melanoma that isn’t easily curable or treatable. Add ‘metastatic’ to your melanoma Google searches and you’ll see how grim survival rates are. This is why it’s a different category for me. And this is why I don’t think “metastatic melanoma” belongs under the umbrella term, “skin cancer.”

Our experiences are different, yet we all have something in common

Every skin cancer patient (melanoma and otherwise) all share one thing in common: our belief that it’s not just skin cancer. And why do we all say that? Because it’s hard! It’s not as easy self-skin checks, frequent dermatologist visits, and having marks and/or moles shaved off. The reality is, any type of cancer diagnosis is much, much more than meets the surface. Each skin cancer type varies in so many ways they all deserve their own time in the sun (with proper sun protection, of course).

Being a part of this community for a few, short months has taught me that it’s not about comparing our cancer experiences, but rather learning from each other and sharing our stories. I recognize this is likely a controversial topic, so I’d love to hear what you think. Let’s chat!

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