What Is Melanoma?
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. If it is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. While it is not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that at present, about 120,000 new cases of melanoma in the US are diagnosed in a year. In 2010, about 68,130 of these were invasive melanomas, with about 38,870 in males and 29, 260 in women.
Melanoma originates in melanocytes, the cells which produce the pigment melanin that colors our skin, hair, and eyes. The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but often they can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white.
Am I at Risk?
Everyone is at some risk for melanoma, but increased risk depends on several factors: sun exposure, number of moles on the skin, skin type and family history (genetics).
Both UVA and UVB rays are dangerous to the skin, and can induce skin cancer, including melanoma. Blistering sunburns in early childhood increase risk, but cumulative exposure also may be a factor. People who live in locations that have more sunlight like Florida, Hawaii, and Australia develop more skin cancers. Avoid using a tanning booth or tanning bed, since it increases your exposure to UV rays, raising your risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers.
There are two kinds of moles: normal moles the small brown blemishes, growths, or "beauty marks" that appear in the first few decades of life in almost everyone and atypical moles, also known as dysplastic nevi. Atypical moles can be precursors to melanoma, and having them puts you at increased risk of melanoma. But regardless of type, the more moles you have, the greater your risk for melanoma.
As with all skin cancers, people with fairer skin (who often have lighter hair and eye color as well) are at increased risk. Do you know your skin type? Click here to take our Skin Type Quiz.
Heredity plays a major role in melanoma. About one in every 10 patients diagnosed with the disease has a family member with a history of melanoma. If your mother, father, siblings or children have had a melanoma, you are in a melanoma-prone family. Each person with a first-degree relative diagnosed with melanoma has a 50 percent greater chance of developing the disease than people who do not have a family history. If the cancer occurred in a grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew (second-degree relatives), there is still an increase in risk, although not as great.
If melanoma is present in your family, you can protect yourself and your children by being particularly vigilant in watching for the early warning signs and finding the cancer when it is easiest to treat.
Once you have had melanoma, you run an increased chance of recurrence. People who have or had basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma are also at increased risk for developing melanoma.
Weakened Immune System
Compromised immune systems as the result of chemotherapy, an organ transplant, excessive sun exposure, and diseases such as HIV/AIDS or lymphoma can increase your risk of melanoma.
If you are in any of these risk groups, you can protect yourself and your children by practicing safe sun habits, remembering to examine yourself regularly from head to toe, watching for the warning signs, and obtaining yearly exams by a dermatologist or other physician experienced in skin care.