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Cancer Health Library : Skin Cancer


Cancer Types - Melanoma

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin from a pigment known as melanin. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it may occasionally be found in children and adolescents. Melanoma may also be called cutaneous melanoma or malignant melanoma. Melanoma is tan uncommon but agressive form of skin cancer.

Melanoma is a more serious type of cancer than the more common basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. Although the incidence of melanoma is lower than other types of skin cancer, it has the highest death rate and is responsible for a majority of all deaths from skin cancer.

Where is melanoma most often found?

Melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned men and women, but people with other skin types can be affected. In men, melanoma most often appears on the chest orback. In women, the arms and legs are more common sites. It can also develop on the face, neck, or other areas.Rarely, melanomas can form in parts of the body not covered by skin, such as the eyes, mouth, vagina, large intestine, and other internal organs.

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, such as smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. Different diseases, including cancers, have different risk factors.

Although these factors can increase a person's risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease. Some people with one or more risk factors never develop the disease, while others develop disease and have no known risk factors.

But, knowing your risk factors to any disease can help to guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

People with the following characteristics may be at an increased risk for melanoma:

  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Fair complexion
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Personal history of melanoma
  • Many ordinary moles (more than 50)
  • Many freckles
  • An immunosuppressive disorder
  • Dysplastic nevi (abnormal moles)
  • Sun exposure
  • Early childhood sunburns
  • Inability to tan
  • Tanning bed use 

Dark-brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. African-Americans can develop this cancer, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails, or in the mouth.

What are the symptoms of melanoma?

The following are the most common symptoms of melanoma. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in the size, shape, or color of a mole
  • Oozing or bleeding from a mole
  • A mole that looks different from your other moles or feels itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender to the touch

Because most malignant melanoma cells still produce melanin, melanoma tumors are often shaded brown or black. Melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole. Melanoma can spread quickly to other parts of the body through the lymph system, or through the blood. Like most cancers, melanoma is best treated when it is diagnosed early.

The symptoms of melanoma may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Distinguishing benign moles from melanoma

To find melanoma early, when it is most treatable, it is important to examine your skin on a regular basis, and become familiar with moles, and other skin conditions, in order to better identify changes. Certain moles are at a higher risk for changing into malignant melanoma. Moles that are present at birth (congentigal nevi), and atypical moles (dysplastic nevi), have a greater chance of becoming malignant. Recognizing changes in your moles, by following this ABCD Chart, is crucial in detecting malignant melanoma at its earliest stage. The warning signs are:

Normal mole / melanomaSign

Characteristic

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing asymmetryAsymmetryWhen half of the mole does not match the other half
Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing border irregularityBorder

When the border (edges) of the mole are ragged or irregular

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing colorColorWhen the color of the mole varies throughout
Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing diameterDiameterIf the mole's diameter is larger than a pencil's eraser
Photographs Used By Permission: National Cancer Institute

Melanomas vary greatly in appearance. Some melanomas may show all of the ABCD characteristics, while others may show only a few, or even none, of these changes. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

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