Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that forms in skin cells called melanocytes (cells that make melanin which gives skin its color.) It sometimes develops from a nevus (type of birthmark) or mole that is already present but isn’t cancerous. The most common type of melanoma is called cutaneous melanoma. Cutaneous melanomas can occur anywhere along the skin but are most commonly found on the chest or back in men and on legs of women. Melanomas can also develop in mucous membranes (lining the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, or other areas of the body) or in the eye.1,2,3
In the United States, the average lifetime risk for melanoma is 2.3%.4 Most cases of melanoma are diagnosed at older ages, but melanoma is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in people under the age of 30.1,2 Some hereditary cancer syndromes cause an increased risk for melanoma.1,2,3
General Risk Factors
As with the vast majority of cancers, there is no confirmed way to completely prevent the development of melanoma. Avoiding or limiting sun exposure, avoiding tanning beds, wearing sun-protective clothing (hat, clothes made of UV-protected fabric, sunglasses), wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen (with a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 30 and reapplying as directions indicate), and regular skin checks can all help reduce the risk for melanoma.
When evaluating moles for warning signs of melanoma, it can be helpful to use the “ABCDE” rule. Check for asymmetry (the shape of half of a mole does not match the other half), border (ragged, notched, uneven, or blurred border), color, and diameter. The “E” stands for evolving. Look for changes in any of the previously mentioned features of a mole. Also look for changes in texture, or the way a mole feels. These symptoms can appear in an existing mole or may be present in a new abnormal-looking mole.
Skin self-exams and skin exams by health care professionals can help detect melanoma. Self-exams are best performed in a well-lit room with access to a full-length mirror. A hand-held mirror or a family member can help with the viewing of hard to see areas of the body. Self-exams can be performed as much as once a month so that you can notice any new moles or changes to existing moles. Any suspicious moles should be evaluated by your doctor and/or a dermatologist (a doctor specializing in skin problems). Regular skin exams performed by a health care professional are important for people considered to be at a higher risk for melanoma due to any of the risk factors above, including a hereditary cancer syndrome. Biopsies (tissue samples) of moles can be taken by a doctor if a mole needs to be further evaluated.
If melanoma is diagnosed following a biopsy, treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer (how far the cancer has grown or spread). Treatment can include some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy or could also include biologic therapy (a treatment that uses a patient’s immune system to fight cancer) or targeted therapy (a treatment that uses drugs or other agents to attack cancer cells.)
AVOID THE FOLLOWING
Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
- Sunlight is a main source of UV rays but tanning beds may also cause significant UV light exposure
- Living closer to the equator or at higher elevations
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: Melanoma (https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/melanoma)
- American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer – Melanoma (http://www.cancer.org/cancer/skincancer-melanoma/index)
- National Cancer Institute: Melanoma treatment (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/melanoma/Patient)
- SEER Cancer Stat Facts: Melanoma of the Skin. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/melan.html
- Bishop DT, et al. Geographical variation in the penetrance of CDKN2A mutations for melanoma. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002 94:894-903.