Melanoma is the third most common type of skin cancer and accounts for approximately 1-5% of skin cancers. Although less common than other skin cancers, melanomas are the most aggressive and can spread to other organs if left untreated. Melanomas can be life-threatening with a fatality rate higher than basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma combined. Early detection and treatment is critical for curing this type of cancer.
Melanomas originate from melanocytes, which are pigment producing cells in the skin. Consequently, most melanomas present as pigmented lesions with color variation or dark pigment. In rare cases, some cancers may present as pink to red growths without pigment called “amelanotic melanoma”. Unlike BCCs and SCCs which are common on sun-exposed skin, melanomas are more common on the back in men and legs in women. A melanoma can present as a cancerous lesion by itself or can originate from a pre-existing mole. That is why it’s important for people to examine their skin regularly and monitor their moles for any changes, growth, or symptoms.
Risk factors for melanoma include:
- Presence of multiple moles, large or atypical (unusual-looking) moles
- First degree family member with melanoma
- Overexposure to sunlight
- Exposure to other sources of UV radiation, such as tanning beds
- Fair skin and sun sensitivity
- Immune system deficiency due to disease or organ transplantation
- Previous melanoma
A biopsy is often required to confirm the diagnosis of a melanoma. Treatment depends on size, depth, and location of the tumor. Surgical excision with appropriate margins and regular skin exams are often appropriate for superficial melanomas less than 1mm (0.1 cm) in depth. Larger or deeper lesions may require sentinel lymph node biopsy and adjuvant therapy in addition to surgical excision. People who develop any suspicious lesions that are changing, growing, bleeding or not healing, should consult a dermatologist, as early detection greatly increases the likelihood of a cure.