M Testing Archives

Testing is an ever-present part of the journey for Melanoma, helping identify stage, treatment options, progress, and potential recurrence. Testing can also introduce a whole new vocabulary into your life. Don’t let jargon overwhelm you or undermine your grasp of test options and results.

We can help you evolve into an informed melanoma advocate who understands results and how to use testing as a conduit to the most personalized care.

More resources for Melanoma Testing from Patient Empowerment Network.

Pathology

This video was originally published by Aim At Melanoma on Nov 4, 2014, here.

 

 

 

Skin samples taken by a biopsy or surgical excision are typically sent to a pathologist/pathology laboratory for microscopic examination and diagnosis. A pathology report is issued by the pathologist or dermatopathologist. The pathology report states the diagnosis and further describes many aspects of the appearance of the melanoma, including the type, depth of invasion, tissue level of invasion, presence or absence of a lymphatic response, presence or absence of ulceration, mitotic count, presence or absence of regression, presence or absence of satellite lesions, and presence or absence of blood vessel/lymphatic vessel/nerve invasion.

Additionally, the pathology report will describe whether the excised lesion is a primary melanoma, in which case it would be described using the terms above, or a metastatic melanoma deposit. A metastatic melanoma deposit is one in which the melanoma started somewhere else on the skin and some of the melanoma cells broke off and spread within the skin tissue to the current biopsy/specimen site.

Some Terms You May See on Your Pathology Report

Type of Melanoma (Histologic Subtype):

  • Superficial spreading melanoma
  • Nodular melanoma
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma
  • Lentigo melanoma
  • Desmoplastic melanoma
  • Other: mucosal melanoma
  • Other: uveal melanoma

Breslow Depth: Measurement in millimeters of how thick the primary tumor is, regardless of its Clark Level. It is measured from the top layer of the skin to its deepest point.

Clark Level: Clark Level was replaced in the revised melanoma staging system in 2010 by more reliably predictive features (mitotic count and ulceration). It is now only used to stage thin melanomas (< 1mm).

Radial Growth Phase (RGP): The melanoma lesion is described as either having RGP present or absent. If present, RGP is an indication that the melanoma is growing horizontally, or radially, within a single plane in the upper/superficial skin layers (mainly in the epidermis).

Vertical Growth Phase (VGP): The melanoma is described as either having VGP present or absent. If present, VGP is an indication that the melanoma is growing vertically, or deeper, into the tissues.

Tumor-Infiltrating Lymphocytes (TILs)TILs describe the patient’s immune response to the melanoma. When the pathologist examines the melanoma under the microscope, he/she looks to see whether or not there are lymphocytes within the melanoma. The amount of lymphocyte invasion/response to the melanoma is described as brisk (a lot of lymphocytes), nonbrisk (some), sparse (few) or absent (none), although occasionally it can be described as mild or moderate. TILs appear to indicate that your immune system has recognized the melanoma cells as abnormal and is trying to move into the melanoma to attack it. Some studies suggest that the presence of increasing number of TILs may be associated with a better prognosis.

Ulceration: Ulceration is described as being present or absent. It is the breakdown or loss of the top layer of cells in a melanoma and often occurs in the center of a tumor. The presence of ulceration increases the stage classification of a melanoma. Ulceration is thought to reflect rapid tumor growth, leading to the death of cells in the center of the melanoma and thus is associated with a worse prognosis. The pathologist can determine whether ulceration is present or absent when they review the biopsy under the microscope.

Regression: Regression is described as an area of the tumor without active melanoma cell growth and is described as present or absent. If it is present, the extent of regression is estimated… When regression is present, the measured thickness of the melanoma may not be the greatest/true thickness.

Mitotic Count (Mitotic Rate): Mitosis is the process by which one mature cell divides into two identical cells. When pathologists study melanoma, they will count the number of actively dividing cells that they see. Averaging this number gives the mitotic count and it is reported as the number of mitoses per square millimeter (mm2), (example ≤1 mitoses/mm2). A high mitotic count means more tumor cells are dividing at a given time and is associated with a worse prognosis.

Satellites: Satellite lesions are small nodules of tumor/melanoma located more than 0.05mm from the primary lesion, but less than 2cm. Satellites are described as being present or absent. Some satellite lesions (macroscopic) can be seen with the naked eye. Others, which are smaller (microscopic) can be found only by the pathologists. Both macroscopic and microscopic lesions are reported in the pathology report.

Blood Vessel/Lymphatic Invasion: Blood vessel invasion, also called angioinvasion, or lymphatic vessel invasion, is described as being present or absent. If present, it means that the melanoma has invaded the blood or lymph system and is associated with more aggressively growing melanomas.

Early Detection of Melanoma

This video was originally published by Aim At Melanoma on  November 4, 2014, here.

 

 

Tips to reduce your risk of developing melanoma:

Wear Sunscreen.

Make sunscreen a daily habit. UV radiation can still damage skin even in the winter and on cloudy days.

Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30.

Wear Protective Clothing.

Protect your body with sun-protective clothing, hat, and sunglasses.

Avoid Peak Rays. Seek shade during the mid-day sun, when the sun’s rays are most intense.

Don’t Use Tanning Beds. Indoor tanning has been shown to increase the risk of melanoma by up to 75%. Melanoma is one of the top three cancers diagnosed in young adults (ages 25-29), and scientists attribute this trend to the use of tanning beds among this age group, particularly young women.

Protect Your Children. Just one bad sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles your child’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.

Melanoma Risk Factors: People with the following traits are at higher risk for developing melanoma and other skin cancers:

Fair skin, red or blonde hair light eyes, more than 50 moles, history of sunburn or UV exposure, family history of skin cancer, and personal history of skin cancer.

The ABCDE Melanoma Check

This video was originally published by The Mayo Clinic on Aug 7, 2017, here.

Melanoma develops in the cells that produce your skin’s pigment and is the most serious type of skin cancer. However, when it’s detected early, melanoma can be effectively treated. The ABCDE melanoma test can help you identify the warning signs of cancer.

Coping With Scanxiety: Practical Tips from Cancer Patients

“Every three to four months I get a wake-up call that my life has taken an unexpected turn. Believe me, there are daily reminders of how different I am now; but scan time is big time scary time, mentally. It takes living with cancer to yet another level of heighten sense of mortality and anxiety.  So MANY thoughts and what ifs course through my brain.  SO hard to shut it off.”  – Katie Edick, METASTATIC AND MAKARIOS.

It may not be officially part of the medical lexicon yet, but “scanxiety” is no less real for those of us who have experienced a diagnosis of cancer.   Pamela Katz Ressler, RN, MS, HNB-BC, founder of Stress Resources, describes scanxiety as “the anxiety, worry and fear that accompanies the waiting period before and after a medical test.” She says it is a common side effect of modern medicine. “As our medical system has become more technologically adept at measuring indicators of disease so too has our anxiety” she says. “Scanxiety is an unintended consequence of medical testing, yet it is one that is rarely discussed by medical professionals with patients.”

Writing in Time magazine in 2011, lung cancer survivor, Bruce Feiler, characterized scans as “my regular date with my digital destiny.  Scanxiety, he wrote, arises from the feeling of “emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we’re in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom.”

One of the most common emotional and psychological responses to the experience of cancer is anxiety.  Cancer is a stressful experience and normal anxiety reactions present at different points along the cancer journey.  Did you know that the word anxiety comes from the Latin word anxius, which means worry of an unknown event? Worry, in turn comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “to strangle” or “to choke” – which may very well convey the feeling we have right before a scan, or whilst waiting for its results.

Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a biological purpose – the body’s physical “fight or flight” (also known as the stress response) reaction to a perceived threat. Symptoms vary for each person.  You may experience a racing or pounding heart, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, upset tummy, sweating or tense muscles. Alongside these physical manifestations, you may feel irritable, angry or apprehensive and constantly on the alert for signs of danger. All of these signs indicate that sympathetic arousal of our nervous system has been activated, preparing us to stand our ground and fight or take flight and run away from danger.

Scanxiety, points out Katz Ressler, can be intense and may mimic symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares. As Susan Zager, founder of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Breast Cancer (A4BC), points out “MRIs are very noisy – and because my recurrence was found through an MRI biopsy, I have many memories of scary results from that test.”

It’s been over ten years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and while my scans are less frequent these days, the anxiety never fully goes away. As blogger and patient advocate, Stacey Tinianov writes, “This is reality even after almost five years with no evidence of disease. I’m not a worrier or a hypochondriac. I’m just a woman whose body once betrayed her by growing a mass of rouge cells that, if left unchecked, have the potential to bring down the house.”

If you are facing an upcoming scan and feeling anxious about it, you may find the following tips helpful. Based on my own experience and the experience of others in the cancer community, these tips are some of the ways in which we have learned to cope with scanxiety.

1. Identify your body’s stress response

How we experience stress is individual to each of us. Learning to tune into what happens in your body when you perceive a stressful situation is the first step in understanding your individual stress response. Does your jaw clench? Is your breath shallow? Are your muscles tense? When you become more aware of your physical response to stress, it will help regulate the tension when it does occur.

2. Pay attention to your breathing

When we are stressed we tend to breathe more shallowly.  Shallow breathing, which does not allow enough oxygen to enter our bodies, can make us even more anxious.   When you feel stressed, practise taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down and lowers blood pressure. The advantage of focussing on the breath is that it is always there with us. We can turn to it anytime we are feeling anxious.

3. Stay focussed on the present

Focussing on the past or future can increase your anxiety. Katz Ressler recommends staying focused on the present moment as a way to quieten anxious thoughts. “Methods that have proved successful for scanxiety focus on tools of resilience, often based on mindfulness strategies,” she says. “Key in these methods is to focus on the present moment and not on the outcome of a test or scan.” Focusing on each and every breath is an excellent way to begin to increase your awareness of the present moment.  If you would like to try some short mindfulness meditations to increase resilience and help decrease anxiety, you will find some on Katz Ressler’s website.

4. Use visualization

By enhancing your relaxation skills, you are can lower the fight or flight response that is often triggered during times of increased anxiety. Visualization involves using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. Similar to daydreaming, visualization is accomplished through the use of your imagination. Karin Sieger who has recently received a diagnosis of cancer for the second time, shares this advice, “I certainly keep my eyes shut when inside the machine; focus on my breathing; remind myself this has a start and finish; and then generally try and go in my mind to a calm meadow and have a snooze. Because for once there is nothing else I can or should do for the next minutes.”

5. Practical coping tips

Karin also points to the claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed in a scanning machine as a contributor to anxiety.  Stage IV breast cancer patient, Julia Barnickle recommends an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) process, called the “Fast Phobia Cure” which worked for her. “I still don’t like enclosed spaces,” she says, “but I certainly don’t panic like I used to.” Blogger Margaret Fleming also recommends asking the attendants for any items that can make you more comfortable, such as ear-plugs or a blanket.

6. Break the worry habit

Worry can be a habit and like all habits can be broken.  As soon as that worry voice starts in your head, examine it before it takes hold. Ask yourself, will worrying about this help me in any way?  Julia writes, “For me, worrying is a choice – as is happiness. In the same way that I choose to be happy, regardless of what happens around me or in my own life, I also choose not to worry about – or fear – what might happen in the future. I tend to believe that things will work out for the best. And besides… what will happen will happen, regardless of whether or not I worry about it – so I don’t see the point of spoiling my enjoyment in the meantime. I prefer to get on with my life.”  Jo Taylor, who is living with secondary breast cancer agrees. “I have taken the view that nothing will change the outcome, therefore there’s no point in worrying,” she says.

7. Create an anxiety worry period

Many patients speak about the most anxious period of time being the time you are waiting for scan results. As stage IV blogger and patient advocate, Susan Rahn, writes, “Waiting for the results of any scan that will tell you if the cancer is active and taking up residence in new parts of your body is just as  anxiety inducing, if not worse, as the time leading up to and the day of the actual scan.”

You won’t be able to break the worry habit entirely and ignoring anxious thoughts and feelings can sometimes make them worse.  It’s still important that you acknowledge your worry but not let it control your life. One tip is to designate one or two 10-minute “worry periods” each day, time to fully focus on your anxiety. The rest of the day is to be designated free of anxiety. When anxious thoughts come into your head during the day, write them down and “postpone” them to your worry period.

8. Take Some Exercise

Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety –providing a natural outlet for your body when you are exposed to too much adrenaline. Jo Taylor, who runs an Exercise Retreat To Recovery program in the UK, finds that staying physically active is helpful. “I am still very nervous in the time between scan and reporting, “she says, “but throwing myself into work or exercise or anything else I do is helpful.”

Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. The important thing is to get moving, even if that means just walking around the block. Movement with flow and rhythm can also help calm the body and mind. Katz Ressler recommends gentle yoga and walking meditation as proven ways to decrease the stress response and increase the body’s natural calming mechanism. “Finally, remember”, she says, “while you cannot control the outcome, you can work to control the experience and that starts with building resilience.”

I hope you will find these tips helpful and if you have any other coping tips please feel free to add your advice in the comments below.