A Guide to Melanoma on the Ear
Keep reading to learn about the signs, diagnosis process, and treatment options for melanoma on the ear.
Melanoma is a skin cancer that originates in the melanocytes. These are the cells that give your skin its brown or tan pigment. This skin cancer occurs when the melanocytes begin to grow out of control.
Melanoma is notorious for its ability to spread quickly. This is especially true for melanoma on the ear. Your ear has thin skin that covers the cartilage and very little fat tissue. This allows cancer to spread quickly in all the layers.
Additionally, your body contains lymphatic channels near your ears which lead to an increased risk of metastasis. Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells to an area of the body that is distant from the original site.
How common is melanoma on the ear?
Melanoma on the ear is rare, accounting for 1–4% of cutaneous melanomas in the United States in 2016.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer on the ear, and basal cell carcinoma is the second most common type.
The main warning sign of melanoma on your ear is a new or existing mole that changes in color, shape, and size. Melanoma will look remarkably different from other moles on your body. In addition, melanoma may ooze, crust over, or bleed spontaneously.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests the acronym ABCDE to help you spot symptoms of melanoma.
- Asymmetry: Melanomas typically are not the same shape on either side.
- Border: While typical moles have smooth and refined edges, melanomas have uneven or sometimes blurred edges.
- Color: Typical moles are consistent in color, like one shade of brown or pink. Melanomas on the ear may vary in color and have specks of blue or black.
- Diameter: Melanomas are often larger than 6 millimeters (mm). For reference, a pencil eraser is 4 mm.
- Evolving: A mole is changing. Documenting suspicious moles is important because melanomas change in appearance rapidly.
Read more about the warning signs of melanoma.
Doctors categorize melanomas based on factors like their appearance and spreading pattern. The Canadian Cancer Society offers information on the four main types:
- Superficial spreading melanoma is the most common type of melanoma. This lesion grows horizontally but can start to grow vertically later on. Its borders are uneven, and the color varies throughout. It is also primarily flat.
- Nodular melanoma, the most aggressive type, is raised and grows vertically. It may take on a mushroom shape that is blue or black in color.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma usually impacts older adults. It starts out as a flat area of brown or tan skin with an uneven border. It grows horizontally for many years before spreading vertically.
- Acral lentiginous melanoma is a rare type of melanoma that grows across the skin. Sun exposure is not a risk factor. A 2017 study noted that African Americans most commonly develop acral lentiginous melanoma.
A combination of environmental factors and genetics contributes to melanoma on the ear.
Frequent exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds puts you at greater risk. Having a close family member with melanoma is also a risk factor.
Additionally, research suggests that melanoma on the ear is most common among older white people assigned male at birth.
If you have suspicious moles and a family history of melanoma, your doctor may suggest getting a skin exam every 3–6 months.
The diagnosis process for melanoma on the ear starts with a physical examination by a healthcare professional or dermatologist.
Your medical professional will ask questions about your level of sun exposure and your family history of skin cancer. During the exam, they will look for suspicious moles. If they detect any, a biopsy can determine the diagnosis.
Because melanoma on the ear can spread quickly, your doctor may order imaging work to check for metastasis. Blood work can also reveal elevated tumor markers.
Learn more about how doctors diagnose skin cancer.
Melanoma of the ear progresses in stages. Your doctor will assign your case a stage based on the size and location of the cancer:
- Stage 0: A cancerous tumor is present, but only in the epidermis, the top layer of skin.
- Stage 1: A cancerous tumor is still localized to one area, but it has grown into the second layer of skin, the dermis. However, the tumor is less than 2 mm thick.
- Stage 2: The melanoma is in the epidermis and dermis, and may be thicker than 2 mm. It has not spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage 3: The melanoma may be affecting nearby lymph nodes.
- Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant sites in your body.
Learn more about the stages of melanoma.
Dermatologists use a combination of methods to treat melanoma on the ear. Surgical removal and targeted immunotherapy drugs are often the first lines of treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe chemotherapy if the melanoma has advanced. A team of medical professionals will form a treatment plan based on your current status.
A 2018 review suggests that conservative excision provides positive outcomes. The review further notes that there is little evidence supporting the need to remove cartilage.
Learn more about treatment options for melanoma.
The earlier the stage your doctor catches melanoma, the better the outlook. Below are the 5-year relative survival rates from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, according to the ACS.
|SEER stage||5-year relative survival rate|
It is important to remember that treatments continue to improve. Also, these numbers do not account for your personal health.
A relative survival rate shows how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.
For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 70% means that 70 out of 100 people diagnosed with a condition are still living at least 5 years from the time of diagnosis.
It is most important to remember that figures are estimates, and everyone is different. Talk with your doctor about your specific condition.
Melanoma of the ear is a rare, aggressive form of skin cancer. It can form from a new or existing mole. Paying attention to moles is important because a changing mole could be a warning sign of melanoma.
People with early stage melanoma have a better outlook. Treatment may include surgical removal. Later stages may involve therapeutic approaches like chemotherapy.