Melanoma is the most serious form of all skin cancers. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (ADD), one American succumbs to advanced melanoma every hour. The incidence of melanoma occurring among U.S. citizens continues to increase due to the use of tanning equipment such as beds and face lamps.

What is the incidence of melanoma?

While this type of skin cancer is not as common as other forms, melanoma is responsible for 80% of deaths related to skin cancers. In excess of 3.5 million skin cancers occur in more than 2 million Americans every year. In 2013, experts predicted that there will be approximately 138,000 new instances of melanoma diagnosed. Since 1981, the overall incidence of melanoma rose by about 3% annually.

What is melanoma?

This serious form of skin cancer is characterized by the proliferation of skin cells that produce melanin (pigment). While melanoma tumors can develop on the skin without any previous warning, they also form on existing common moles or abnormal-appearing moles. Melanoma can affect just the skin, developing anywhere on the body, but the most common areas include the upper part of the back, torso, lower legs, neck and head.

Melanoma is capable of metastasizing (spreading) to the internal organs and/or bones by way of the lymph nodes. Metastasis usually leads to death. Like other varieties of cancers, melanoma treatments are most effective when the cancer is discovered early, rather than in an advanced stage.

Causes and Risk Factors

  • Overexposure to Harmful Ultraviolet (UV) Rays: The primary cause andrisk factor for developing melanoma is excessive exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Overabundant exposure to ultraviolet rays results in normal skin cells becoming abnormal. Quickly growing out of control, these atypical cells attack and destroy the surrounding normal tissues.
  • Sun Exposure: Excessive UV exposure is harmful, and it is due to spending too much time in direct sunlight without proper protection. This dangerous practice often begins in early childhood and generally increases during a person’s teen or adult years. Also, repeated sunburns contribute to melanoma risk.

  • Overuse of Artificial Ultraviolet Sources: The use of artificial UV sources like sunlamps and/or tanning beds greatly increases an individual’s risk of getting melanoma. This kind of high risk behavior is particularly common in women under 45 years of age and especially prevalent in young females in the 15 to 29 age range.
  • Hereditary: You genetic makeup tends to play a big role in melanoma, as well. A family history puts a person at a much greater risk of getting melanoma before 40 years of age.
  • Existing Common or Atypical Moles: Anyone who with excess of 50 common moles, or more than 5 atypical moles, is at a much greater risk for getting melanoma. The ADD estimates that the possibility of melanoma developing is approximately 10 times greater in an individual with 4 to 5 abnormal moles than in someone who has none.
  • Previous History of Melanoma: Those who have survived a previous occurrence of melanoma are approximately nine times more likely to develop another melanoma tumor, as compared to the generalized population.
  • Personal Traits: People with certain skin types have a higher inherent risk of getting melanoma tumors. A patient who has a light or fair complexion and/or many freckles is at an increased risk, as well as anyone with red hair. The incidence of melanoma is 5 times greater in Caucasians than in people of Hispanic descent. It is also 23 times more prevalent in Caucasians than it is in the African American population.

Warning Signs of Melanoma

There are many early warning signs that a melanoma tumor may be forming. Using the simple ABCDE rule for early detection because it is an excellent preventative tool.

  • Asymmetry: A mole appears lopsided or asymmetrical. In other words, one half of the questionable mole does not look like the other half.
  • Borders: The edges of the suspected mole are ragged, blurred or notched in appearance.
  • Color: The abnormal mole lacks uniformity of color. Different shades of brown, black or tan will often be present. Red, white or blue dashes may contribute to the overall mottled appearance of the tumor.
  • Diameter: Generally melanomas are more than 6 millimeters in diameter when actually diagnosed as being malignant. However, they can sometimes be smaller in size.
  • Evolving: Moles or sores that seem different from others, bleed or there are noticeable changes in color, size, shape or consistency.
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