What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is less common than other cancers, yet it is considered the most dangerous because it can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body. This year, it is estimated that more than 90,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma.

Melanoma is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in adults ages 20 to 30, and the leading cause of cancer death in young women ages 25 to 30.

Medical illustration of stage 0 melanoma.

Melanoma occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells grow in the skin’s melanocytes, which are the cells in the deepest layer of the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin) and give the skin its color or pigment.

Though melanoma is most common in adults, it can also be diagnosed in children and adolescents.

Melanoma often begins with a mole or a patch of skin, usually on sun-exposed skin like the head (especially the face/nose), neck, arms, legs and midsection.

When melanoma begins in the skin, it is called cutaneous melanoma. It also can occur in mucous membranes, tissues that cover surfaces like the lips, and in the eye (this type of skin cancer is called ocular melanoma).

The skin cancer specialists at the Multidisciplinary Skin Cancer Clinic at Miami Cancer Institute combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer, creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries, collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, and the best individualized treatment just for you.

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  • 100,350

    new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2020
  • 5

    year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent when detected early

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and melanoma risk factors can be either environmental and/or genetic. For example, those who have had long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or from a tanning bed are at higher risk of developing melanoma.

Other risk factors include having:

  • Fair skin
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Blue, green or light-colored eyes
  • Exposure to environmental factors, such as radiation, solvents, vinyl chloride and PCBs
  • A history of several sunburns with blisters, especially at a younger age
  • Having several large or many small moles, or a family history of unusual moles
  • A personal history or family history of melanoma
  • Having certain changes in genes that are linked to melanom

While people with light skin, hair and eyes have a higher risk for sun-related skin cancer, there are also risk factors for those of Hispanic, African-American and other descents. 

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Preventing or reducing your risk for melanoma can sometimes involve changing lifestyle behaviors and certain environmental exposures, such as over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Preventive measures also include:

  • Using sunscreen year-round, SPF 30 or higher, with both UVA and UVB protection – regardless of how light or dark your skin is naturally
  • Avoiding sun exposure midday when the sun’s rays are strongest (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) 
  • Wearing protective clothing that covers your neck, head and eyes 
  • Avoiding indoor tanning
  • Taking careful precautions to limit occupational exposure to toxic substances 
  • Examining your skin, head to toe, every month

As with any type of cancer prevention, the Skin Cancer specialists at Miami Cancer Institute recommend eating a healthful diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Our experts also recommend knowing and understanding your personal risk factors so that you can take appropriate steps to prevent or reduce your risk for melanoma.

Screening is also important to help prevent and detect melanoma, so remember to check your skin regularly for any unusual moles, growths, bumps or patches of skin, and to discuss any abnormalities or concerns with your doctor.

For many patients, screenings include:

  • Family History Analysis: Many skin tumor types can be inherited. In fact, while melanoma is often caused by sun exposure or UV (ultraviolet) rays exposure, researchers have found that several hereditary syndromes and genes are associated with an increased risk of developing this disease.
  • The ABCDE Rule: Patients and physicians follow the ABCDE rule for checking moles or lesions. The ABCDE rule stands for checking:
    • A: Asymmetry – if the shape is asymmetrical
    • B: Border – if the border is not smooth, is jagged, raised or appears irregular
    • C: Color – if it begins to change color, become darker or look uneven
    • D: Diameter – if it grows in any way
    • E: Evolving Appearance  – if it evolves or changes in appearance in any way
  • 3D VECTRA Imaging: Miami Cancer Institute’s Skin Cancer Clinic is the first health system in the southern United States to utilize the state-of-the-art Vectra 3D DermaGraphixÒ whole body imaging system.
    • This groundbreaking 360-degree body mapping system scans nearly the entire surface of the skin in one instantaneous capture, creating a digital 3D avatar of the patient with images linked to each corresponding lesion on the avatar.
    • One of just a few in the country, the detailed images and body map created with this revolutionary new system enables Miami Cancer Institute’s experts to study and monitor lesions and other skin abnormalities and accurately assess changes over time.

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