Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the pigment-producing cells in the skin. Other names for this cancer include malignant melanoma and cutaneous melanoma. Because most melanoma cells still make pigment, melanoma tumors are usually brown or black. But some melanomas do not make pigment and can appear pink, tan, or even white.
Melanomas can occur anywhere on the skin, but they are more likely to start in certain locations. The trunk (chest and back) is the most common site in men. The legs are the most common site in women. The neck and face are other common sites.
Having darkly pigmented skin lowers your risk of melanoma at these more common sites, but anyone can develop this cancer on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under the nails. Melanomas in these areas account for more than half of all melanomas in African Americans but fewer than 1 in 10 melanomas in Caucasians.
Melanomas can also form in other parts of your body such as the eyes, mouth, and genitals, but these are much less common than melanoma of the skin.
Melanoma is much less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is far more dangerous. Like basal cell and squamous cell cancers, melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages. But it is much more likely than basal or squamous cell cancer to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early.
What are the key statistics of melanoma?
Cancer of the skin is by far the most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for less than 5% of skin cancer cases but causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.
The American Cancer Society’s estimates for melanoma in the United States for 2013:
- About 76,690 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 45,060 in men and 31,630 in women). The rates of melanoma have been rising for at least 30 years.
- About 9,480 people are expected to die of melanoma (about 6,280 men and 3,200 women).
Melanoma is more than 20 times more common in Caucasians than in African Americans. Overall, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2% (1 in 50) for whites, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for blacks, and 0.5% (1 in 200) for Hispanics. The risk for each person can be affected by a number of different factors.
Unlike many other common cancers, melanoma occurs in both younger and older people. Rates continue to increase with age and are highest among those in their 80s, but melanoma is not uncommon even among those younger than 30. In fact, it is one of the more common cancers in young adults (especially young women).
What are the risk factors in melanoma?
- Ultraviolet (UV) light Exposure. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major risk factor for most melanomas. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning lamps and beds are also sources of UV rays. People who get a lot of exposure to light from these sources are at greater risk for skin cancer, including melanoma.
- Moles. A nevus (the medical name for a mole) is a benign (non-cancerous) pigmented tumor. Moles are not usually present at birth but begin to appear in children and young adults. Most moles will never cause any problems, but a person who has many moles is more likely to develop melanoma.
- Fair skin, freckling, and light hair. The risk of melanoma is more than 10 times higher for Caucasians than for African Americans. Caucasians with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or fair skin that freckles or burns easily are at increased risk.
- Family history of melanoma. Your risk of melanoma is greater if 1 or more first-degree relatives (parent, brother, sister, or child) has had melanoma. Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease.
- Personal history of melanoma. A person who has already had melanoma has an increased risk of getting melanoma again. About 5% of people with melanoma will develop a second one at some point.
- Immune suppression. People who have been treated with medicines that severely suppress the immune system, such as organ transplant patients, have an increased risk of melanoma.
- Age. Although melanoma is more likely to occur in older people, this is a cancer that is also found in younger people. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially younger women). Melanoma that runs in families may occur at a younger age.
- Gender. In the United States, men have a higher rate of melanoma than women overall, although this varies by age. Before age 40, the risk is higher for women; after age 40 the risk is higher in men.
Not all melanomas can be prevented, but there are things you can do that could reduce your risk of getting melanoma.
1. The most important way to lower your risk of melanoma is to protect yourself from exposure to UV radiation. Practice sun safety when you are outdoors. If you are going to be in the sun, “Slip! Slop! Slap!… and Wrap” is a catch phrase that can help you remember some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:
- Slip on a shirt.
- Slop on sunscreen.
- Slap on a hat.
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them.
2. Seek shade particularly between the hours of 10am and 4pm when the UV light is strongest.
3. Protect your skin with clothing that has a sun protective factor.
4. Wear a hat with a 2 to 3 inch brim all around.
5. Wear sunglasses that is labeled for blocking UVA and UVB rays.
6. Avoid taning beds and sunlamps.
7. Protect children from the sun.
8. Wear a water resistant sunscreen that has a SPF ( sun protection factor ) of 30 or higher.
9. See your dermatologist if you notice any new, unusual or changing moles.