Melanoma, also known as malignant melanoma, is a dangerous type of skin cancer that occurs in melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the skin pigment known as melanin. Though melanocytes are usually found in the skin, they are also present in the bowel, the eyes, and other areas of the body; however, the risk of melanoma in these areas is very low.
While melanoma is less common than other forms of skin cancer, it is the most deadly and is responsible for approximately 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Approximately 160,000 new melanoma cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Of those, approximately 48,000 result in death.
Melanoma of the skin is caused by excessive ultraviolet light (UV) exposure without the appropriate amount of skin pigmentation, and is almost always preventable.
The most common symptom of melanoma is a change in an existing mole. In fact, this visible assessment is so common, health care professionals have created this simple alphabetical checklist:
Asymmetry – Varying shapes of lumps or moles, even within each mole
Borders – Irregular mole borders – scalloped, wavy or notched
Color – Uneven, either between different moles, or within the same mole
Diameter (greater than 6 mm (0.24 in), about the size of a pencil eraser) – Melanomas that are larger than ¼ inch in diameter and appear to be growing
Evolving – Changing in size, shape and/or color
Moles that itch, ooze or bleed are also suspect. It is important to remember, however, that melanoma can appear on normal skin tissue and does not always start as a mole.
These classifications do not apply to the most dangerous form of melanoma, nodular melanoma, which has its own set of symptoms and must be diagnosed by a professional.
Because melanoma development is so closely related to the overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, Caucasians are more susceptible to contracting the disease.
By gender, women commonly develop melanomas on their legs while in men they appear most often on the back and the back of the neck. Fair-skinned people and people who have experienced repeated sunburns are at greater risk of developing melanoma. Others who are at a higher risk include:
Once melanoma has been confirmed through a biopsy and pathological examination, there are several treatment options available:
Mohs surgery – A highly effective procedure that is favored by many of our dermatologists
Chemotherapy – Uses drugs, sometimes in combination, to destroy cancer cells. Though not as successful as Mohs surgery, chemotherapy may be appropriate in some cases.
Immunotherapy – As with chemotherapy, this option may be less effective, but immunotherapy may be a viable treatment option for some cases.
Radiation – Uses focused, high-powered radiation beams to eradicate cancer cells. Sometimes recommended after surgery to help reduce the rate of recurrence.
Biological therapy – Uses naturally-occurring substances to help boost the body’s immune system to fight the cancer cells.