Understanding Melanoma

Although there are several different types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most deadly and severe. Melanoma is a type of cancer that forms in the cells that are responsible for pigment in the skin, the melanocytes. The cancer usually responds to treatment well if caught by doctors such as Petra Rietschel, MD early enough. If not treated or detected quickly, the cancer can spread to other organs in the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma

Melanoma is usually associated with exposure to the sun. But, melanoma can develop on any part of the skin, even in areas that are not usually exposed to the sun, such as the skin on the bottom of the feet or in the nail beds. So-called hidden melanomas tend to develop on people who have darker colored skin.

The signs of melanoma can be spotted using an ABCDE mnemonic. The "A" stands for asymmetrical. Moles that are unusually shaped should be examined by a dermatologist or other doctor, as they may be cancerous.

The "B" stands for border. Moles with an irregular border, such as a bumpy or scalloped border might be a cause for concern. "C" stands for color. Non-cancerous moles or lesions are usually a single color while potentially cancerous lesions are uneven in color or multi-colored. Some might be blue or red.

The "D" refers to diameter, or the size of the mole. Larger moles, such as those bigger than 1/4 inch are usually a cause for concern and should be examined by a doctor. Size isn't always an indicator, though, as some melanomas start out small.

Finally, the "E" stands for evolving. Cancerous moles will change in some way as time goes on. A mole might start bleeding or develop a crust, for example. It can change color, shape, or grow in size. If a mole is a suspected melanoma, a doctor might take a picture of it and compare the photo to any changes at a later appointment.

Who is at Risk

Certain habits increase a person's risk for melanoma. A person might also have an increased risk due to family history or skin type. For example, people with lighter skin are usually at greater risk for developing melanoma. That does not mean that darker skinned people are immune from the cancer. In addition to having light skin, having a lot of moles on the skin raises risk.

Exposure to the sun is a major risk factor in developing melanoma. People who are out in the sun without protection frequently are more likely to develop the cancer. Sun exposure also includes spending time in tanning beds or other UV ray exposure. Having a history of severe, blistering sunburns also increases risk, as does living in a sunny part of the world, such as near the equator.

Family history plays a role in melanoma risk as well. 10 percent of patients with melanoma have a family member who also had the disease. Having a parent or sibling with melanoma increases a person's risk for the cancer by 50 percent.

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    November 2012