Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It is the least common form of skin cancer, but it can be more serious because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Melanoma arises from the type of cell called melanocytes that give moles their dark colors. These cells can be found in the skin, eyes, digestive system, nail beds, or lymph nodes. Although melanoma is most common in the skin, it may also arise in these other areas.
Treatment for melanoma depends on how early it is detected, or if the melanoma has spread.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant growths. These growths invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells but is probably a combination of genetics and environment.
The most common risk factor for melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The most common source of this radiation comes form the sun, but it is also found in sun lamps and tanning booths.
Melanoma is found most often in older adults, but it can happen in young adults. It is more common in people who are Caucasian. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing melanoma include:
Melanomas are not usually painful. They often have no symptoms at first.
The first sign is often a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of an existing mole. Melanoma may also appear as a new, dark, discolored, or abnormal mole. Remember that most people have moles. Almost all moles are benign.
The following are signs that a mole may be a melanoma (ABCDE criteria):
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will look at your skin and moles. You may be referred to an eye specialist if melanoma of the eye is suspected. A skin biopsy of the suspicious area will be done. The tissue will be examined under a microscope.
Your doctor may also examine lymph nodes. Enlarged lymph nodes may suggest the spread of melanoma. A sample of lymph node tissue may also be removed for testing.
Once melanoma is found, more tests will be done to determine the stage of cancer. Melanoma is staged like other cancers, from I to IV. The stage will help determine your treatment course.
Treatment will depend on the location and stage of the melanoma. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options may include one or more of the following:
The melanoma and some healthy tissue around it will be removed. If a large area of tissue is removed, skin from another area of your body will be needed to cover the wound. Lymph nodes near the tumor may also be removed for testing or to stop the spread of cancer.
Chemotherapy is medication that kills cancer cells. It is used to treat advanced melanoma. There are many options and your doctor will choose the best ones for you.
Immunotherapy is used to treat advanced melanoma, and melanoma that has a high risk of return. Immunotherapy stimulates the body's own immune system to find and destroy cancer cells.
Some people have a genetic mutation in the BRAF gene that can cause the melanoma to grow and divide quickly. This BRAF mutation occurs in nearly half of all melanomas. Certain medications can help your body target cells with the BRAF mutation.
Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is usually used in combination with other therapies, but may be used alone for eye melanomas.
To help reduce your chance of developing melanoma:
Early diagnosis and treatment is important. Take the following steps to find melanoma in its early stages:
American Academy of Dermatology
Skin Cancer Foundation
Canadian Cancer Society
Canadian Dermatology Association
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Melanoma skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003120-pdf.pdf. Accessed August 5, 2015.
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5/18/2015 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Perez-Gomez B, Pollán M, Gustavsson P, et al. Cutaneous melanoma: hints from occupational risks by anatomic site in Swedish men. Occup Environ Med. 2004;61(2):117-126.
Last reviewed August 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.