Melanoma is a severe type of skin cancer that originates in melanocyte cells. It is rare in comparison to basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) (SCC). Melanoma is more dangerous than other forms of skin cancer because it is more likely to infiltrate surrounding tissues and spread rapidly to other body parts.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma develops when DNA damage caused by sunburn or tanning results in alterations (mutations) in the melanocytes.

Melanocytes are skin cells located in the epidermis. They generate a pigment called melanin, which is responsible for the skin’s color. When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or tanning beds, it stimulates melanin production by the melanocytes, resulting in uncontrolled cellular proliferation.

There are two types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin.

While eumelanin protects the skin from the sun, pheomelanin will not. Darker-skinned individuals have a higher concentration of eumelanin, whereas fair-skinned individuals have a higher concentration of pheomelanin. That is why persons with darker skin are at a reduced risk of getting melanoma than those with pale skin, who are more vulnerable to UV damage, blistering, and skin cancer owing to a lack of eumelanin.

While being white or having a fair complexion increases one’s chance of developing melanoma, anybody, including those with dark skin, can get melanoma.

Where is melanoma found? 

Melanoma may develop in any area of the skin. Melanoma that begins in the skin is referred to as cutaneous melanoma. Melanoma can also develop on mucous membranes, such as the thin, moist tissue layers surrounding the lips.

Melanoma is frequently seen on the trunk of males, which is the region between the shoulders and hips. It is also prevalent on men’s heads and necks. Melanoma more frequently develops in the arms and legs of women. Melanoma that develops in the eye is referred to as intraocular or ocular melanoma.

What does melanoma look like?

It may resemble an age spot, a bruise, a sore, a cyst, or a scar, or it may appear as a black line beneath your nail. While you may not feel a melanoma, it may itch, sting, or bleed at times. Often, it resembles a mole.

Almost everyone has at least one mole – a pigmented area on the skin that is flat or elevated. These patches are formed by the clustering of skin pigment cells called melanocytes. While most moles are safe and do not alter in form or color, some can grow, change shape, or change color. A few can become cancerous. Only 20%-30% of melanomas are discovered in pre-existing moles, while 70% to 80% occur on normal-looking skin.

Signs a mole may be cancerous

Melanoma, like the majority of skin cancers, melanoma may present as a dark, painless patch or sore on the skin. As it develops, it may change shape and color and may bleed. Unlike most skin cancers, melanoma can occur in areas of the body that are not typically exposed to the sun, such as the groin, armpits, or soles of the feet.

There are indications that a skin lesion may be malignant. The most telling sign that a lesion on the skin may be melanoma is if it changes. Over time, a cancerous mole will vary in size, shape, and color.

A dermatologist can use the “ABCDE” method in a visual examination, and it may also help you determine whether an abnormal skin growth may be melanoma:

A is for asymmetry: Does the mark look different on each half?

Bis for border: Are the edges jagged or irregular?

Cis for color: Is your lesion uneven in color with specks of black, brown, and tan?

D is for diameter: Is your lesion getting larger?

E is for evolving or elevation: Has your lesion changed in size, shape, or texture over the past few weeks or months?

If a visual exam by your doctor causes them to suspect melanoma, then a sample of the mole, called a biopsy, can be done to check for cancer. If the mole is cancerous, the goal will be to remove it before it has a chance to spread.

Risk Factors of Melanoma

A risk factor is something that raises your risk of contracting a disease. Unusual moles, excessive sun exposure, and a family history of melanoma can all increase your chance of developing melanoma. Possessing a risk factor does not guarantee that you will get cancer; conversely, being free of risk factors does not guarantee that you will not develop cancer.

Risk factors for melanoma include the following:

  • A family history of unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome)
  • A family or personal history of melanoma
  • A history of many blistering sunburns, especially as a child or teenager
  • Being White
  • Blue or green or other light-colored eyes
  • Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly
  • Having several large or many small moles
  • Red or blond hair

While being White or having a fair complexion increases one’s chance of developing melanoma, anybody, including those with dark skin, can get melanoma.

Schedule a cancer screening at Buckeye Dermatology 

If you think you may be at risk of melanoma or notice any changes in a mole or indications in the ABCDE method, please see a Buckeye Dermatologist for a complete skin cancer screening. Melanoma is usually curable when detected and treated early. Once melanoma has spread deeper into the skin or other parts of the body, it becomes more challenging to treat and can be deadly.