What is melanoma?

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Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin the pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanoma can also form in your eyes and, rarely, in internal organs, such as your intestines.

The exact cause of all melanomas isn't clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases your risk of developing melanoma. Limiting your exposure to UV radiation can help reduce your risk of melanoma.

The risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40, especially women. Knowing the warning signs of skin cancer can help ensure that cancerous changes are detected and treated before the cancer has spread. Melanoma can be treated successfully if it is detected early.

Symptoms

Melanomas can develop anywhere on your body. They most often develop in areas that have had exposure to the sun, such as your back, legs, arms and face.

Melanomas can also occur in areas that don't receive much sun exposure, such as the soles of your feet, palms of your hands and fingernail beds. These hidden melanomas are more common in people with darker skin.

The first melanoma signs and symptoms often are: A change in an existing mole The development of a new pigmented or unusual-looking growth on your skin

Melanoma doesn't always begin as a mole. It can also occur on otherwise normal-appearing skin.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of melanoma include: Fair skin. Having less pigment (melanin) in your skin means you have less protection from damaging UV radiation. If you have blond or red hair, light-colored eyes, and freckle or sunburn easily, you're more likely to develop melanoma than is someone with a darker complexion. But melanoma can develop in people with darker complexions, including Hispanics and blacks. A history of sunburn. One or more severe, blistering sunburns can increase your risk of melanoma as an adult. Excessive ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. Exposure to UV radiation, which comes from the sun and from tanning beds, can increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. Living closer to the equator or at a higher elevation. People living closer to the earth's equator, where the sun's rays are more direct, experience higher amounts of UV radiation than do those living in higher latitudes. In addition, if you live at a high elevation, you're exposed to more UV radiation. Having many moles or unusual moles. Having more than 50 ordinary moles on your body indicates an increased risk of melanoma. Also, having an unusual type of mole increases the risk of melanoma. Known medically as dysplastic nevi, these tend to be larger than normal moles and have irregular borders and a mixture of colors. A family history of melanoma. If a close relative -- such as a parent, child or sibling -- has had melanoma, you have a greater chance of developing a melanoma, too. Weakened immune system. People with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of skin cancer. This includes people who have HIV/AIDS and those who have undergone organ transplants.

Prevention

You can reduce your risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer if you: Avoid the sun during the middle of the day. For many people in North America, the sun's rays are strongest between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day, even in winter or when the sky is cloudy. You absorb UV radiation year-round, and clouds offer little protection from damaging rays. Avoiding the sun at its strongest helps you avoid the sunburns and suntans that cause skin damage and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Sun exposure accumulated over time also may cause skin cancer. Wear sunscreen year-round. Sunscreens don't filter out all harmful UV radiation, especially the radiation that can lead to melanoma. But they play a major role in an overall sun protection program. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours -- or more often if you're swimming or perspiring. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Wear protective clothing. Sunscreens don't provide complete protection from UV rays. So cover your skin with dark, tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs and a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than a baseball cap or visor does. Some companies also sell photoprotective clothing. A dermatologist can recommend an appropriate brand. Don't forget sunglasses. Look for those that block both types of UV radiation -- UVA and UVB rays. Avoid tanning lamps and beds. Tanning lamps and beds emit UV rays and can increase your risk of skin cancer. Become familiar with your skin so that you'll notice changes. Examine your skin regularly for new skin growths or changes in existing moles, freckles, bumps and birthmarks.

With the help of mirrors, check your face, neck, ears and scalp. Examine your chest and trunk and the tops and undersides of your arms and hands. Examine both the fronts and backs of your legs and your feet, including the soles and the spaces between your toes. Also check your genital area and between your buttocks.

Source: Mayo Clinic

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