Melanoma is a cancer of the pigment producing cells in the skin, known as melanocytes. Cancer is a condition in which one type of cell grows without limit in a disorganized fashion, disrupting and replacing normal tissues and their functions, much like weeds overgrowing a garden. Normal melanocytes reside in the outer layer of the skin and produce a brown pigment called melanin, which is responsible for skin color. Melanoma occurs when melanocytes become cancerous, and then grow and invade other tissues.

Melanoma begins on the surface of the skin where it is easy to see and treat. If given time to grow, melanoma can grow down into the skin, ultimately reaching the blood and lymphatic vessels, and spread around the body (metastasize), causing life-threatening illness. It is curable when detected early, but can be fatal if allowed to progress and spread. The goal is to detect melanoma early when it is still on the surface of the skin.

What causes it?

It is not certain how all cases of melanoma develop. However, it is clear that excessive sun exposure, especially severe blistering sunburns early in life, can promote melanoma development. There is evidence that ultraviolet radiation used in indoor tanning equipment may cause melanoma. The risk for developing melanoma may also be inherited.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get melanoma, but fair-skinned sun-sensitive people are at a higher risk. Since utraviolet radiation from the sun is a major culprit, people who tan poorly, or burn easily are at the greatest risk.

In addition to excessive sun exposure throughout life, people with many moles are at an increased risk to develop melanoma. The average person has around 30 moles, and most are without significance; however, people with more than 50 moles are at a greater risk. In addition to the number of moles, some people have moles that are unusual and irregular looking. These moles (nevi) are known as dysplastic or atypical moles. People with atypical moles are at increased risk of developing melanoma. Melanoma also runs in families. If a relative such as a parent, aunt or uncle had melanoma, other blood relatives are at an increased risk for melanoma. The following factors help to identify those at risk for melanoma:

  • Fair skin 
  • History of sunburns 
  • More than 50 moles   
  • Atypical moles  
  • Close relative who have had melanoma

Anyone can develop melanoma, but people with one or more of the risk factors are more likely to do so. Periodic skin examinations by a dermatologist can truly be life saving.