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Melanoma Treatment

General Information About Melanoma

 

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Melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin cells called melanocytes (cells that color the skin).

Melanocytes are found throughout the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken. Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.
Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.

Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. The skin has 2 main layers: the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer).

When melanoma starts in the skin, the disease is called cutaneous melanoma. This PDQ summary is about cutaneous (skin) melanoma. Melanoma may also occur in the eye and is called intraocular or ocular melanoma. (See the PDQ summary on Intraocular (Eye) Melanoma Treatment for more information.)

There are 3 types of skin cancer:

Melanoma is more aggressive than basal cell skin cancer or squamous cell skin cancer. (See the PDQ summary on Skin Cancer Treatment for more information on basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer.)

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body.

In men, melanoma is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, melanoma often develops on the arms and legs. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it is sometimes found in children and adolescents.

Unusual moles, exposure to sunlight, and health history can affect the risk of developing melanoma.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for melanoma include the following:

Possible signs of melanoma include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area.

These and other symptoms may be caused by melanoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

Tests that examine the skin are used to detect (find) and diagnose melanoma.

If a mole or pigmented area of the skin changes or looks abnormal, the following tests and procedures can help detect and diagnose melanoma:

Suspicious areas of the skin should be biopsied and not be shaved off or cauterized (destroyed with a hot instrument, an electrical current, or a caustic substance).

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

Although many people are successfully treated, melanoma can recur (come back).