It’s not the most prevalent types of skin cancer, but melanoma is the most dangerous type of the disease.
Melanoma accounts for just two percent of skin cancer cases but claims up to 13,000 American lives annually, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Skin cancer and melanoma cases are being seen more often,” said Peter Garrett, MD, an independent oncologist who chooses to practice at Franciscan Health Cancer Center in Indianapolis.
Melanoma develops in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color.
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the skin. Men often get it on the trunk. This is the part of the body between the shoulders and the hips. They may also get it on their head or neck. Women often get it on their arms and lower legs. Sometimes melanoma may occur even on areas of the skin that are never exposed to sunlight.
While it’s known as a “skin” cancer, melanoma also can be found in the eyes or the lining of some internal organs. It may even occur in the eye, under a fingernail or toenail, or in the nose and sinuses. Or it can occur in other parts of the body.
“Melanomas can occur on almost any area of the body, including areas that don’t get much sun exposure, such as the soles of your feet, palms of your hands and fingernail beds,” said Juliana Meyer, MD, melanoma surgeon with Franciscan Physician Network and director of the Melanoma Clinic at Franciscan Health Cancer Center in Indianapolis. "Melanomas are usually black or brown in color but can be pink, red or purple.”
What are the Risk Factors for Melanoma?
The most common risk factors for melanoma include:
- Age. Melanoma is more common in older people, but it is still one of the more common cancers in younger people.
- Gender. Men have a higher risk for melanoma overall, but women have a higher risk before age 50.
- Sun exposure. Sunlight, the main source of UV rays, is a major risk factor for melanomas (and other skin cancers). Some research suggests that having many sunburns, especially in childhood, might increase the risk of getting melanoma.
- Artificial tanning. The use of tanning beds and sunlamps has been linked to an increased risk of melanoma.
- Moles. While most moles are harmless, people who have many moles or abnormal moles (dysplastic nevi) are at increased risk for melanoma.
- Fair skin, light hair. People with light-colored skin are many times more likely to develop melanoma than those with darker skin. People with very pale skin, those who freckle easily, and those with red or blond hair are at higher risk.
- Family history. People whose parents or siblings have had melanoma are at higher risk of melanoma. In some families, people share specific gene changes that increase their risk. For example, some families share changes in a gene known as CDKN2A, which increases their risk. Still, known gene changes account for only a small portion of melanomas.
- Certain inherited conditions. People with certain rare, inherited conditions, such as xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), are at increased risk for melanoma.
- Personal history of skin cancer. People who have had melanoma or another type if skin cancer before are more likely to develop melanoma again.
- Weak immune system. People who have a weak immune system, such as people who have had an organ transplant, are at higher risk for melanoma.
How Can I Reduce My Risk of Melanoma?
Reducing the risk of skin cancer is paramount – and simple. There is no sure way to prevent melanoma, but there are some things that may help lower your risk for skin cancer, such as:
- Wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) year-round
- Not using tanning booths and sunlamps
- Practicing sun safety. Limit time in the sun when UV light is strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.)
- Wearing sunglasses that have 100% UVA/UVB protection
- Wearing clothing to shade your face and cover your body
- Doing skin checkups
You may be able to spot skin cancer early when it’s easier to treat by doing a regular skin self-exam. “Skin cancer is very curable when caught early on,” said Krishnan Srinivasan, MD, a medical oncologist with Specialty Physicians of Illinois who chooses to practice at the Franciscan Health Cancer Center in Olympia Fields. “People prone to moles, or with a family history of skin cancer should pay close attention to any changes and seek attention as soon as possible.”
Download the Infographic
What Are Early Signs of Melanoma?
The first symptom of melanoma is often a change in a mole, or the appearance of a new mole. These ABCDE rule can help you tell a normal mole from one that might be melanoma. The ABCDE rule is:
- Asymmetry. One half of the mole does not match the other half.
- Border irregularity. The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.
- Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that appear to have lost color.
- Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.
- Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.
Other Symptoms of Melanoma
Other signs and symptoms that may be melanoma include:
- A mole that itches or is sore.
- A mole that oozes, bleeds, or becomes crusty.
- A mole that looks different from your other moles.
- A sore that doesn't heal.
- A mole or sore becomes red or swells at its edges or beyond.
Become familiar with the way your moles look so you will know if they’re changing. Take note of any new moles that appear on your skin. Self-monitoring of moles and other markings on the skin helps with early detection of the disease.
A clinical diagnosis initially is made by the appearance on the skin, which can be confirmed with a biopsy.
Melanoma: Frequently Asked Questions
Take Our Melanoma Quiz