MelanomaMelanoma, also known as malignant melanoma, is a type of cancer that develops from the pigment-containing cells known asmelanocytes. Melanomas typically occur in the skin but may rarely occur in the mouth, intestines, or eye. In women they most commonly occur on the legs, while in men they are most common on the back. Sometimes they develop from a mole with concerning changes including an increase in size, irregular edges, change in color, itchiness, or skin breakdown. The primary cause of melanoma is ultraviolet light (UV) exposure in those with low levels of skin pigment. The UV light may be from either the sun or from tanning devices. About 25% develop from moles. Those with many moles, a history of affected family members, and who have poor immune function are at greater risk. A number of rare genetic defects such as xeroderma pigmentosum also increase risk. Diagnosis is by biopsy of any concerning skin lesion.

Avoiding UV light and the use of sunscreen may prevent melanoma. Treatment is typically removal by surgery. In those with slightly larger cancers, nearby lymph nodes may be tested for spread. Most people are cured if spread has not occurred. In those in whom melanoma has spread, immunotherapy, biologic therapy, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy may improve survival. With treatment the five-year survival rates in the United States is 98% among those with localized disease and 17% among those in whom spread has occurred. The likelihood that it will come back or spread depends how thick the melanoma is, how fast the cells are dividing, and whether or not the overlying skin has broken down.

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Globally, in 2012, it occurred in 232,000 people and resulted in 55,000 deaths. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. There are also high rates in Europe and North America while it is less common in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Melanoma is more common in men than women.  Melanoma has become more common since the 1960s in areas that are mostly Caucasian.

Signs and symptoms

Early signs of melanoma are changes to the shape or color of existing moles or, in the case of nodular melanoma, the appearance of a new lump anywhere on the skin. At later stages, the mole may itch, ulcerate or bleed. Early signs of melanoma are summarized by the mnemonic “ABCDE”:

  • Asymmetry
  • Borders (irregular)
  • Color (variegated)
  • Diameter (greater than 6 mm (0.24 in), about the size of a pencil eraser)
  • Evolving over time

These classifications do not, however, apply to the most dangerous form of melanoma, nodular melanoma, which has its own classifications:

  • Elevated above the skin surface
  • Firm to the touch
  • Growing

Metastatic melanoma may cause nonspecific paraneoplastic symptoms, including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Metastasis of early melanoma is possible, but relatively rare: less than a fifth of melanomas diagnosed early become metastatic. Brain metastases are particularly common in patients with metastatic melanoma. It can also spread to the liver, bones, abdomen or distant lymph nodes.