What is melanoma?

Melanoma is cancer of melanocytes, the skin cells that produce the pigment responsible for skin color. Cancerous melanocytes will grow in number in a disorganized way, replacing and disrupting normal tissues and their functions.

Since melanoma begins on the skin’s surface where it is easy to see, it can be caught and treated early, when it’s curable. If it isn’t detected early, it will grow down under the skin, getting into the blood and lymphatic vessels and from there spread around the body. When melanoma metastasizes like this it becomes life-threatening.

What causes melanoma?

Several risk factors make people more likely to get melanoma including:

  • Excessive exposure to the sun
  • Severe blistering sunburns, especially early in life
  • Indoor tanning
  • Genetic factors; having close relatives who have had melanoma
  • Fair skin
  • People who tan poorly; burn easily
  • Having blond or red hair
  • Having more than 50 moles
  • Having unusual and irregular looking moles

The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop melanoma. However, anyone can develop melanoma. For this reason getting periodic skin exams can be life saving.

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How is melanoma diagnosed?

If any unusual moles are found during a full body skin exam, a biopsy will be taken and examined under a microscope.

If a biopsy reveals melanoma or another type of skin cancer, we will discuss treatment options. Treatment for skin cancer varies according to the type, location, extent, aggressiveness of the cancer, and the patient’s general health.

The goals of treatment for skin cancer are to remove all of the cancer, reduce the chance of recurrence, preserve healthy skin tissue, and minimize scarring after surgery.

More resources

  • SkinCancerNet — This is informational site by the American Academy of Dermatology