Office of Cancer Control and Prevention

Select textsizemediumlargelarger

Melanoma

What is it?

  • Melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer. It begins in melanocytes— cells that make the skin pigment called melanin.
  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, affecting some 1 million Americans every year. The are three main types of skin cancer:

    1. Basal cell, the most prevalent
    2. squamous cell
    3. Malignant melanoma.
  • Basal and squamous cell cancers have a good prognosis, but are at higher risk for developing additional skin cancers.
  • Melanoma of the skin or cutaneous malignant melanoma, the rarest but most lethal form of skin cancer, is responsible for about three-fourths of all deaths from skin cancer.

What puts me at risk?

  • Exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UV light) is well established as a major risk factor for melanoma.
  • Skin coloring
  • Geographic location
  • Sunburn history
  • Melonocytic nevi (suspicious moles)
  • Heredity
  • Carcinogens
  • Age

    For information on family history, log onto:
    U.S. Surgeon General ’s Family History Initiative

Preventing Cancer

  • Cutaneous melanoma prevention begins with avoidance of exposure to the sun, especially during midday.
  • Those who cannot avoid the sun should limit direct sun exposure using broad-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, pants, sun-resistant fabrics, or sunscreen.
  • Avoid tanning beds and tan accelerating agents.
  • Regular Skin Check-Ups-
    During a skin cancer screening, your doctor will probably discuss your medical history and inspect your skin from head to toe — including areas not exposed to the sun. He or she will record the location, size, and color of any moles. If a mole looks unusual, he or she may arrange for a biopsy.
  • Knowledge about UV Index
    The UV Index is issued daily to advise you on the strength of the sun's UV rays in your region. The higher the UV Index level, the greater the strength of the sun's UV rays and the faster you may burn. The UV Index was designed to help you make informed decisions about the time you spend in the sun.

Screening for Early Detection

  • People with fair complexions and freckles are at increased risk for basal and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as for melanoma. Those with moles are at increased risk for melanoma. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers often look like a pale, waxlike, pearly nodule, or a red, scaly, sharply outlined patch. Melanomas often start as small, mole-like growths that increase in size and change color, which usually starts as black or dark brown. Signs of melanoma are:
  • Asymmetrical spots
  • Borders that are uneven or irregular
  • Color that is uneven and unusual
  • Diameter larger than a quarter inch
  • These are often called the ABCDs of melanoma.

    Regular examination of the skin by both you and your doctor increases the chance of finding melanoma early. Most melanomas that appear in the skin can be seen by the naked eye.

    Usually, there is a long period of time when the tumor grows beneath the top layer of skin but does not grow into the deeper skin layers. This period of slow growth allows time for skin cancer to be found early. Skin cancer may be cured if the tumor is found before it spreads deeper. Monthly self-examination of the skin may help find changes that should be reported to a doctor. Regular skin checks by a doctor are important for people who have already had skin cancer.

    For more information on screening, log onto:
    National Cancer Institute

Treatment Options

  • After diagnosis and staging, the doctor develops a treatment plan to fit each patient's needs. Treatment for melanoma depends on the extent of the disease, the patient's age and general health, as well as other factors.

  • A team of specialists, which may include a dermatologist, surgeon, medical oncologist, and plastic surgeon, often treats people with melanoma.

  • The standard treatment for melanoma is surgery.
    Surgery- Surgery to remove (excise) a melanoma is the standard treatment for this disease. It is necessary to remove not only the tumor but also some normal tissue around it in order to minimize the chance that any cancer will be left in the area.

  • In some cases, doctors may also use chemotherapy, biological therapy, or radiation therapy.
    Chemotherapy- Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is generally a systemic therapy, meaning that it can affect cancer cells throughout the body. In chemotherapy, one or more anticancer drugs are given by mouth or by injection into a blood vessel (intravenous). Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.

    Biological Therapy- Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy) is a form of treatment that uses the body's immune system, either directly or indirectly, to fight cancer or to lessen side effects caused by some cancer treatments. Biological therapy is also a systemic therapy and involves the use of substances called biological response modifiers (BRMs). The body normally produces these substances in small amounts in response to infection and disease. Using modern laboratory techniques, scientists can produce BRMs in large amounts for use in cancer treatment. In some cases, biological therapy given after surgery can help prevent melanoma from recurring.

    Radiation Therapy- radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) is used to relieve some of the symptoms caused by melanoma. Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is a local therapy; it affects cells only in the treated area. Radiation therapy is most commonly used to help control melanoma that has spread to the brain, bones, and other parts of the body.

  • The doctors may decide to use one treatment method or a combination of methods.

    For more information on treatment options, log onto:
    National Cancer Institute

    For information on finding a doctor or treatment facility, log onto: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/doctor-facility

Clinical Trials

Coping with Cancer

Palliative Care

  • Palliative care is a coordinated, inter-disciplinary approach to healthcare that enhances the quality of life of patients with cancer and other illnesses. It targets the physical and psychological symptoms and spiritual needs of patients from the time of diagnosis to end-of-life care in all settings.

    For more information on Palliative Care , log onto:
    The World Oncology Network
    StopPain.org
    New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

Children Coping with Parents with Melanoma

  • Learn more about all different types of cancers.
  • Questions that children might have dealing with cancer.
  • Books to help children understand more about certain cancers.
  • Stories from other children.
  • Camps and foundations.

For more information, log onto:
CancerSourceKids


Statistics

Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan
New Jersey State Cancer Registry

More Information