Melanoma is a potentially life-threatening skin cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (brown pigment). Melanoma’s fatality rate is higher than that of basal cell and squamous cell cancers; it accounts for more than 80 percent of all skin-cancer deaths. Early detection and treatment greatly increase the likelihood of cure. Regular skin exams with a dermatologist is the best way to catch and early melanoma. Early signs of melanoma are related to changes in shape or color of existing moles, or the development of new ones. Early signs of melanoma are generally identified by the mnemonic ABCDE: Asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter greater than 6 mm, evolution over time.
The majority of melanomas are black or dark brown, but can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. During later stages, a melanoma may itch or bleed. Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional UV exposure (frequently leading to sunburn), especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Other risk factors include large number of moles, family history of melanoma, previous history of melanoma, previous history of dysplastic nevi, and fair skin with poor tanning ability. If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. While it is not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths.
The incidence of melanoma is on the rise. Treatment for melanoma depends on its location, thickness and progression, as well as the patient’s age, health, medical history and preferences. A biopsy is often performed to determine the extent of the cancer. Most often, the appropriate treatment is skin surgery, deeper melanomas may require additional testing and treatment.