Hearing the words “you have skin cancer” is an overwhelming experience and can leave you with a lot of questions. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cutaneous melanoma, it is important to ask your doctors plenty of questions and know your options.
With 76,000 new diagnoses in the U.S. per year, cutaneous melanoma is not the most prevalent form of skin cancer, but it is the most aggressive. Unlike other more common skin malignancies like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma often spreads widely to other parts of the body. So while it represents just 4% of skin cancers, melanoma accounts for about 80% of skin cancer-related deaths. That’s 9,000 people each year—or one person per hour.
How does skin cancer form?
Cutaneous melanoma is thought to be triggered by intense, occasional exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from the sun or tanning beds, especially in people who are genetically predisposed to the disease. When skin cells are damaged by UV light in this way, often showing up as a sunburn, they are more prone to genetic defects that cause them to rapidly multiply and form potentially fatal (malignant) tumors. Melanoma originates in a type of skin cell called melanocytes, which help produce the pigments of our skin, hair, and eyes.
Skin melanoma occurs most frequently in people with a light complexion, since they are least protected against UV radiation. Also, people with more than 50 moles, a family history of melanoma, a weakened immune system, or those who sunbathe or use tanning beds, are at increased risk. Melanoma is the fastest growing cancer in men and the second fastest growing cancer in women (after lung cancer).
Spotting a melanoma
Knowing what to look for can play a large role in your diagnosis. Melanomas often resemble moles, since some actually form from moles. They are usually black or brown but can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white.
While early detection is vital, we now understand that survival is strongly linked to the biology of your tumor. In other words, biology drives tumor behavior, or how likely the cancer is to metastasize (spread to other parts of the body).
Though melanoma can be life-threatening, there are new treatments under development that have been effective in some patients with advanced disease.