Malignant Melanoma

Melanoma is a potentially life-threatening skin cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (brown pigment). Melanoma has a fatality rate higher than those for basal cell and squamous cell cancers - it accounts for more than 80 percent of all deaths from skin cancer.

The causes are not yet known, although there are many suspected risk factors, including:

  • Familial tendency to develop freckles or prominent or atypical (unusual-looking) moles.
  • Presence of many freckles, moles, large moles or atypical moles
  • Family member with melanoma
  • Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, especially sunbathing
  • Overexposure to sunlight before age 18
  • Caucasian ancestry, with fair skin (although all races/skin tones are susceptible)
  • Sun sensitivity / Poor tanning ability
  • Immune system deficiency due to disease or organ transplantation
  • Previous presence of melanoma

Treatment for melanoma depends on the tumor's location, thickness and progression as well as the patient's age, health, medical history and preferences. A biopsy is often performed to determine the extent of the cancer. Most often, the appropriate treatment is surgery, followed by adjuvant therapy (interferon, vaccines) for patients at great risk of metastasis (spreading of cancer throughout the body). Other common options are chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biologic therapy (interferon, cytokines, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines) to improve the body's self-defense abilities.

Early detection and treatment greatly increase the likelihood of total cure. Self-examination in front of a mirror is the best way to find melanoma early. If you think you have melanoma, see a physician immediately.

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