What is melanoma?

Melanoma in face

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is usually curable if caught early. However, it can be very dangerous if it spreads. Originating in cells called melanocytes, melanoma often appears on the chest, back, face, legs and arms. In some cases, melanoma can appear on parts of the body that receive little sunlight exposure, like under nail beds. New cases of melanoma have been on the rise for the last 30 years, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, over 76,000 new melanomas are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. While melanoma isn’t the most common type of skin cancer, it is the deadliest.

Specific characteristics set melanomas apart from regular moles. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, dermatologists recommend using the A-B-C-D-E method to help identify abnormal moles:

A – asymmetry

B – borders that are uneven

C – changes in color

D – diameter (larger than a quarter of an inch)

E – evolving in shape, color, size, texture, elevation, etc.

Causes of melanoma

Melanin, which gives our skin its color, is produced by cells called melanocytes. If these cells undergo DNA damage, it can lead to melanoma. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause such DNA damage. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, UV radiation from tanning beds increases melanoma risk by 75 percent. Sun exposure also bumps up the risk. The exact reason as to why some people develop melanoma while others do not remains unclear. However, certain risk factors are believed to increase the likelihood of developing it. According to the American Cancer Society, these risk factors include:

  • Exposure to UV light
  • Moles (people with many moles are at an increased risk of developing melanoma)
  • Complexion (people with fair skin, freckles and/or light hair are especially at risk)
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Age (melanoma usually appears in older people, but more and more people under 30 are being diagnosed each year)
  • Gender (women are at a higher risk before age 40. After age 40, more men than women are diagnosed)

Treating melanoma

While melanoma is arguably the most dangerous type of skin cancer, it’s also the most curable. If caught early, the chances of overcoming melanoma is quite favorable. According to the American Cancer Society, 95 percent of patients who treat melanoma during its initial stage will likely be cancer-free 10 years later. Treating early-stage melanoma usually involves removing the melanoma and its surrounding skin and tissue. If the melanoma is advanced, more traditional cancer treatments come into play.

  • Chemotherapy: also known as “chemo,” this treatment option is perhaps the best-known approach for addressing cancer. It is usually administered in a systemic way. This means that the medications used to kill cancer cells circulate the entire body, not just the area(s) where the cancer exists. Many types of chemo drugs are available, each one coming with its own varying side effects. As a result, this treatment approach is often associated with adverse side effects such as nausea and hair loss.
  • Radiation: this is a highly effective cancer treatment that can be administered on its own or in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or surgery. According to the American Cancer Society, radiation works by killing cancer cells through the delivery of high-energy particles.
  • Targeted therapies: this treatment approach is considered less damaging to a person’s healthy cells than chemotherapy or radiation. Targeted therapies, which come with fewer side effects, attack the way in which cancer cells divide and proliferate. Interfering with cellular processes is at the heart of targeted therapies.
  • Biological therapy: this treatment involves an injection of antibodies that strengthen the body’s natural ability to fight melanoma.

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