What is Melanoma and Is It Life-Threatening?

dermatologist examining melanoma mole
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Question: What is melanoma and is it life-threatening?

Answer: Melanoma is a type of skin cancer and is considered to be the most dangerous form of the disease. Although less commonly diagnosed than other types of skin cancer, melanoma accounts for over 75% of skin cancer deaths.

Melanoma develops in cells called melanocytes that are found in the lower part of the epidermis, the outer layer of your skin.

Melanocytes are cells that are responsible for creating skin pigmentation, or melanin. Melanin is what gives our skin its natural hue. As skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, the skin produces more melanin as a natural defense to prevent or delay sunburn.

What Causes Melanoma?

UV rays cause damage to the skin, including damage to the DNA in skin cells. This can lead to cancerous changes in the skin cells, including melanoma. UV rays are also be produced in tanning booths and sunlamps, causing the skin to produce melanin and a darker, tanned appearance. Because they use UV light, indoor tanning is not any safer than tanning in the sun.

Risk Factors for Melanoma

Moles: People with many moles are at a higher risk for developing melanoma. Although most moles are benign, there are certain types that carry a higher risk, such as dysplastic nevi, also referred as atypical moles. They often have a melanoma-like appearance.

Skin Pigmentation: Caucasians are 20 times more likely to develop skin cancer than African Americans. This is due to the protective effect of melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation. People with red hair, light complexions or freckles are also at a higher risk for developing melanoma. However, regardless of skin color, there is a risk factor when the skin is being exposed to UV rays.

Sunburn: The risk factor you can control is a history of blistering sunburns, especially at a young age. Protect your skin and those of children from sunburn and you can reduce their risk. A high lifetime exposure to UV, whether from the sun or artificial sources, is a risk factor you can control by avoiding sun and tanning beds.

There are other risk factors for developing melanoma such as family history of the disease, certain medications, and genetics. Gender also plays a role. Women have a higher rate of melanoma under age 45, but by age 60 men have twice the rate as women do, and it goes up even more to three times the rate by age 80.

Diagnosing Melanoma

A skin exam is done to look for suspicious moles and pigmented areas. Suspicious areas are removed and examined in the lab under a microscope to look for cancer cells. Simple removal is not enough as there may be cancer cells lurking around the edges that are still able to grow or spread. Early detection is key. When detected early, there is an excellent survival rate.

Treating Melanoma

Melanoma can be life threatening if left untreated or diagnosed in late stages. There are medications and therapies for the disease. Melanoma is treated in a wide variety of ways, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy and targeted therapy.

The treatment depends on the stage of the melanoma and where it may have spread. Melanoma can spread into nearby tissue, or through the lymph system and through the blood to other parts of the body.It can invade the lungs, liver, brain, bone, GI tract and other tissues.

If caught early, the 5-year survival rate in the earliest stage, Stage IA, is 97% and the 10-year survival rate is around 95% These rates drop with higher stages of cancer, The rate for Stage IV is 15-20% for five years. Early detection and treatment are very important.


A Snapshot of Melanoma, National Cancer Institute, November 5, 2014.

Melanoma Treatment (PDQ), National Cancer Institute, September 3, 2015.

Melanoma Skin Cancer: What are the survival rates for melanoma skin cancer, by stage? American Cancer Society, 3/19/2015.

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