What Is Melanoma?
Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin from a pigment known as melanin. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it may occasionally be found in children and adolescents. Melanoma may also be called cutaneous melanoma or malignant melanoma. Melanoma is an uncommon, but aggressive, form of skin cancer.
Melanoma is a more serious type of cancer than the more common basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Although the incidence of melanoma is lower than other types of skin cancer, it has the highest death rate and is responsible for most deaths from skin cancer.
What Causes Melanoma?
Anyone can develop melanoma, but people who have the following risk factors have an increased risk:
- Blond or red hair
- Blue or green eyes
- Fair complexion
- Family or personal history of melanoma
- Many ordinary moles (more than 50)
- Many freckles
- An immunosuppressive disorder
- Dysplastic nevi (abnormal moles)
- Sun exposure
- Early childhood sunburns
- Inability to tan
- Tanning bed use
Dark-brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. African Americans can develop this cancer, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails or in the mouth.
Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma
Melanoma can develop on normal skin or from an already existing mole. It can take on a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. When checking for atypical moles and growths, you may find the ABCDEs of melanoma helpful in identifying worrisome growths:
- Asymmetry: 2 sides of the mole are of different sizes and shapes
- Border irregularity: Borders are scalloped, irregular, notched or hard to find
- Color variation: Multiple colors (black, brown, red, white, blue) within the same growth
- Diameter: Larger than 6mm (size of pencil eraser) although melanoma can be smaller
- Evolution: Any growth that changes rapidly in size, shape, color
Treatment for Melanoma
Melanoma can spread quickly to other parts of the body through the lymph system or the bloodstream. Like most cancers, melanoma is best treated when it is diagnosed early.
Treatment for melanoma may be local, systemic or both:
- Local treatments remove, destroy or control the cancer cells in one certain area. Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments.
- Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy, targeted therapy and biological therapy (immunotherapy) are systemic treatments.
The treatment goals for melanoma differ depending on the patient’s individual case. At UCLA Dermatology, our dermatologists, radiologists, surgical oncologists and other specialists work together to determine a treatment plan that is right for you.
A patient may need just one or a combination of treatments. Our physicians may recommend one or more of the following:
- Surgery to remove the melanoma while leaving as much of the surrounding skin intact as possible
- Radiation therapy to kill cancer cells using high energy X-rays or other radioactive particles. It may be used after surgery to try to kill any remaining cancer cells or to treat melanoma that has recurred or spread.
- Chemotherapy to kill tumor cells directly to shrink tumors that cannot be removed by surgery or that have spread to distant areas of the body
- Biological therapy (immunotherapy) such as antibody or vaccine therapy to boost the immune system to help shrink advanced melanomas.
- Targeted therapy using new drugs to target specific parts of melanoma cells and help shrink tumors.
For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (310) 825-6911.