Melanoma is one of the most serious types of skin cancer. One of the reasons that melanoma is classified as serious skin cancer is that it can spread to other parts of the body.
Your skin is made up of three layers:
The outer layer of the skin (epidermis) contains specialized cells called melanocytes that produce our skin's pigment (natural coloring). Melanoma occurs when these melanocytes begin multiplying out-of-control and form a cancerous tumor.
Patients can develop melanoma from an existing non-cancerous mole — you would begin to notice changes in your mole's appearance. But you may also see a new mole that looks different from your other moles.
Did you know that melanoma can occur anywhere on your body? Not only does melanoma develop on your arms and legs, but it can also develop on your scalp, under your fingernails, your genital area, and even on the soles of your feet.
Melanoma may rarely develop in the body's mucous membranes, including the eye, anus, and vagina.
Just over 100,000 people will develop melanoma in the United States in the coming year.
If you have one of these risk factors for melanoma, it's sensible to begin skin self-exams. Just as with other kinds of cancer, early detection saves lives. Here are some of the risk factors for melanoma.
Age is sometimes considered a risk factor. However, the truth is that melanoma happens in every age group, even teenagers. Half of the people diagnosed with melanoma are over 50 — so that means that adults under 50 are just as likely to develop melanoma. Melanoma is more common in young adults than in many other kinds of cancer. Before age 50, melanoma is more common in women; after 50, it's more common in men.
Experts recommend a monthly skin exam. A monthly self-exam allows you to become familiar with your moles' appearances so that you can detect changes. The monthly exam also will enable you to see new moles.
The ABCDE guidelines are an easy and convenient way to conduct your monthly skin exam.
Take notice, too, of an Ugly Duckling — a mole that is significantly different from nearby moles. A melanoma may stand out from other moles because it's darker, lighter, bigger, or smaller. A single mole on a large area of your skin with no other moles is considered an "ugly duckling," too.
About one-quarter of melanomas develop from existing moles. An astonishing 75% appear as new growths on the skin.
People of color are more likely to develop melanomas in areas that aren't exposed to the sun. They are more likely to have melanoma on the palm of their hand, the sole of their foot, or beneath a fingernail or toenail.
Early detection is key — the five-year survival rate is 99% when melanoma is detected early.
There are several ways that you could keep track of your moles and other skin changes. The old-school way was to have a paper “body map” that you used to mark moles, growths, or other suspicious spots. Many people choose to continue using the paper method and that’s perfectly fine. However, there are also other options if you’d prefer to keep your records digitally -- including smartphone apps.
Several smartphone apps can help you keep track of skin changes and changes in specific moles. These apps are helpful, but they do not take the place of seeing a dermatologist when you detect moles that look suspicious. Always remember that it's better to err on the side of getting a dermatologist to look at any skin growth that looks different or pops up and quickly grows.
Early detection of suspicious moles saves lives and helps prevent disfigurement because a patient waited too long to see a dermatologist. Be sure to incorporate a monthly skin self-exam into your routine.