MELANOMA BASICS

Melanoma is a very serious form of cancer that occurs most often in the skin and less frequently in the eye or in the lining of the nose, mouth, or genitals. The word melanoma comes from the Greek words, melas (black) and -oma (tumor). Melanoma begins in melanocytes, cells that make a pigment called melanin. Both light- and dark-skinned people have melanin, which gives color to the skin, hair, and parts of the eye.

The focus of this Web site is on melanoma of the skin, also known as cutaneous melanoma. Melanoma is the least common of all skin cancers, but the most deadly. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma accounts for only about 4% of all skin cancer cases but causes 79% of all skin cancer-related deaths. The good news is that when melanoma is detected and treated in its early stages, the chances for long-term, disease-free survival are excellent.

About 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of melanoma. You are at increased risk of developing melanoma if there is a family history of melanoma in one or more of your first-degree relatives (parent, brother or sister, or child).

The major environmental risk factor for melanoma is overexposure to the sun's damaging rays, known as ultraviolet (UV) radiation. People who have fair skin that burns or freckles easily need to be especially careful in the sun. Protecting yourself against UV overexposure is an important way you can help reduce your risk of developing melanoma.

There are two common misconceptions about melanoma. The first is that melanomas develop only in sun-exposed areas of the body. In fact, melanomas can occur in areas not normally exposed to the sun, including the abdomen, genitals, and soles of the feet. The second misconception is that dark-skinned and Asian people are not at risk for the disease. In fact, one type of melanoma occurs most frequently in African Americans and Asians, developing on the palms, soles, and nailbeds.

The first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole or the appearance of a new mole. Men most commonly develop melanoma on the trunk, particularly the back, and women on the legs or arms. By becoming familiar with the pattern of moles and spots on your body, you have a good chance of detecting changes early and bringing them to the attention of your doctor.

If you do receive a melanoma diagnosis, take heart. Treatments for early stage melanomas are available and survival rates have improved steadily in recent years with 85% of diagnosed patients enjoying long-term survival following surgery. (1). There have also been advances in the treatment of advanced disease, which have prolonged survival and improved quality of life.

References
1Lotze MT, Dallal RM, Kirkwood JM, Flickinger JC. Cutaneous melanoma. In DeVita VT, Rosenberg SA, Hellman S (eds.), Principles and Practice of Oncology, 6e. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2001.