Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. Although it is much less common than some other types of skin cancers, it is more dangerous because it’s much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early.
Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. Cases of melanoma have tripled in the last 30 years! Based on data from 2012 to 2016, over 77,000 new cases of melanoma occurred in the United States each year (3.1 million people globally). The overall incidence rate of melanoma was 22 per 100,000 but is increasing annually, outpacing almost all other cancers! It is projected that about 100,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with new melanomas in 2020.
The exact cause for all types of melanomas isn’t clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning beds has been found to increase the incidence. Interestingly, genetics also play a role. Statistics show that skin cancer is more common in people with lightly pigmented skin (caucasian people are more at risk). Those with a fair complexion, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes, and those who tend to burn easily are also more likely to develop skin cancer. A mole can become malignant (cancerous) years after the skin has been burnt. One or more blistering sunburns during childhood or teenage years can result in skin cancer many years later.
About 25% of melanomas develop from moles. Changes in a mole such as an increase in size, irregular edges, change in color, itchiness or skin breakdown (spots that won’t heal) can indicate melanoma. The most common areas for melanoma to develop are on the backs of the hands, arms, head, neck and the upper body (back, chest, basically from the shoulders to the hips). Less common areas include the mouth, soles of the feet, and palms of the hands. It can also form in the eyes and, rarely, inside the body, such as in the nose or throat.
Signs and symptoms
A clever way to remember the early signs of melanoma are summarized by the mnemonic “ABCDEF”.
- Borders (irregular with edges and corners)
- Color (variegated)
- Diameter (greater than 6 mm about the size of a pencil eraser)
- Evolving over time
- Funny looking
Avoiding ultraviolet radiation
Minimizing exposure to sources of ultraviolet radiation following sun protection measures such a wearing sun protective clothing (long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and broad-brimmed hats).
Sunscreen appears to also be effective. In the past, use of sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 50 or higher on exposed areas was recommended. Newer sunscreens are effective at blocking both UVA and UVB even at lower SPFs. No matter the SPF, reapplication every two hours is key. It should also be reapplied immediately after swimming or sweating regardless of whether or not is says that it is waterproof.
Although there is no reliable cure for melanoma, it can be treated successfully if it is detected early. Knowing the warning signs can help ensure that cancerous changes are detected and treated before the cancer has spread. For more information, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation at