Melanoma is an uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells that starts in skin cells called melanocytes. It is a type of skin cancer. Melanocytes are pigmented cells in the skin.
The skin has two main layers, the outer epidermis and the inner dermis. Melanocytes are in the lower part of the outer epidermis. These cells make melanin, the pigment that colors the skin, hair, and iris of the eye.
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Early detection is important because melanoma may spread to other parts of the body.
Excess sun exposure, especially early in life, is usually the cause of melanoma. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop melanoma. You may have a higher risk for melanoma if:
Melanoma usually develops on areas of skin exposed to the sun, but it may occur anywhere on the body, including under the nails and in the eye. In men, melanoma tends to develop on the trunk (between the shoulders and hips), the head, or the neck. Women tend to get melanoma more on the lower legs. Melanoma in black people and other people with dark skin is rare. When it occurs, it usually is under the fingernails or toenails, or on the palms and soles of the feet.
The most common symptom in the early stages of melanoma is a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of an existing mole. Many melanomas have a black or blue-black area. It may also show up as a new mole. It may be black, abnormal, or ugly looking.
Think of the letters A, B, C, and D to remember the guidelines for checking for abnormal moles:
Melanomas vary greatly in how they look. It is important to examine your skin regularly and to have skin exams by your healthcare provider at routine checkups.
Your healthcare provider will:
If melanoma is found, you may have other tests. Your provider will do a careful physical exam to look for:
Some tests you may have are:
Surgery is the usual treatment. The entire melanoma, including a wide border of healthy tissue around it, is removed to ensure that no cancerous tissue remains. In some cases, you may have a skin graft (skin from another part of the body is used to replace the skin that was removed).
You may have another procedure to see if cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. This is called a sentinel node biopsy. It is done by injecting a special dye into the skin around the melanoma and then removing only the lymph nodes affected by the dye (usually 1 to 3 nodes). If cancer is found, then an operation called node dissection may be done to remove all of the lymph nodes in the area of the melanoma.
If the melanoma has spread to other parts of your body, treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy (immunotherapy), or surgery.
Follow your healthcare provider's recommended schedule for regular checkups to increase the chance of early detection of a recurring or new melanoma. This is especially important if you have dysplastic nevi and a family history of melanoma. X-rays, blood tests, and scans of the chest, liver, bones, and brain may be a part of your checkups, depending on the thickness of the melanoma or if it has spread to other tissue.
Perform self skin exams monthly using the ABCD guidelines.
Things you can do to help your treatment and recovery include:
For more information on cancer, contact:
Protect yourself from exposure to the sun: