Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs when melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells that give color to the skin, become damaged and turn into cancer cells. Melanoma often gets its start in melanocytes that have grown into a cluster on the skin’s surface, forming a mole. Most moles are not cancerous but should be monitored for possible progression into melanoma.
The American Cancer Society’s current estimates for melanoma in the U.S. are:
- About 99,780 new melanomas per year (about 57,180 in men and 42,600 in women)
Melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers. Even though it is less common than other types of skin cancers, melanoma is the most lethal because of its ability to rapidly spread.
If treated early, melanoma has a high rate of survival. In the early stages, melanoma tends to stay on the surface. However, if a melanoma thickens and grows downwards into the deeper layers of skin, it can start to spread. The lungs, liver, brain, bones and the skin or lymph nodes are among its usual targets.
Melanoma Risk Factors
Melanoma, like most skin cancers, typically results from sun exposure. The more sun exposure, the greater the risk of developing melanoma. Melanoma most often develops in areas that have had ample exposure to the sun, such as the back, legs, arms and face.
Anyone could be at increased risk for melanoma if they:
- Spend time outdoors without protecting their skin from the sun
- Use tanning beds or other indoor tanning devices
- Have had blistering sunburns
- Have fair skin, light-colored eyes, or naturally red or blond hair
- Are age 50 and up
- Have many moles or have a mole that is larger than ¼ inch, isn’t perfectly round, is more than one color, or has a jagged border
- Have a weakened immune system and/or are an organ transplant recipient
- Have already had melanoma, other skin cancers, breast cancer or thyroid cancer
- Have a family history of melanoma
Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, even in places that aren’t easily seen. This can include under the fingernails, on the scalp, between the toes or on the soles of the feet.
While unlikely, mucosal melanoma can also develop on mucus membranes inside your nose, mouth, anus or vagina. Bleeding, pain, a lump and discoloration may indicate this type of melanoma.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The trained eye of a board-certified dermatologist can determine whether a mole or spot requires further examination. If so, they’ll do a biopsy. This means removing some of the suspect tissue for study under a microscope.
A treatment plan will depend on the type of melanoma, its location and stage.
Please check your skin regularly, and schedule an appointment as soon as possible if you notice a change in a mole or other signs of melanoma.
This is to be used only as an educational piece. Individuals should not use it to self-diagnose a skin condition or problem.