Cancer of the skin is by far the most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers but causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths since it is more likely to grow and spread if not caught early. There are many other different types of skin cancers, often grouped as non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous cell. These are usually less concerning and are treated differently than melanoma.
The American Cancer Society’s estimates for melanoma in the United States for 2017 are:
- About 87,110 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 52,170 in men and 34,940 in women).
- About 9,730 people are expected to die of melanoma (about 6,380 men and 3,350 women).
The rates of melanoma have been rising for the last 30 years.
Most melanoma cells make melanin – a brown pigment which gives the skin its brown or tan color. Melanoma tumors are usually brown or black. Occasionally, some melanomas do not make melanin and can appear pink, tan, or even white. Melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin, but they are more likely to start on the trunk (chest and back) in men and on the legs in women. The neck and face are other common sites.
There is no sure way to prevent melanoma. The risk for each person can be affected by a number of different factors. Some we can’t change such as age, race and complexion; but there are things we can do to reduce our risk for this disease.
The risk of melanoma increases as people age. The average age of people when it is diagnosed is 63. But melanoma is not uncommon even among those younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults (especially young women).
Melanoma is more than 20 times more common in whites than in African Americans. Overall, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.5% (1 in 40) for whites, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for blacks, and 0.5% (1 in 200) for Hispanics.
Fair skin, freckling, and light hair
Whites with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or fair skin that freckles or burns easily are at increased risk.
Family history of melanoma
Your risk of melanoma is higher if one or more of your first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) has had melanoma. Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease.
The most important way to lower your risk of melanoma is to protect yourself from exposure to UV rays. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are clearly a major cause of melanoma. UV rays can damage the DNA in skin cells. Sometimes this damage affects certain genes that control how skin cells grow and divide. If these genes no longer work properly, the affected cells may become cancer cells.
Practice sun safety when you are outdoors:
- Stay in the shade, especially during the midday hours of 10am – 3pm
- Wear a shirt and hat
- Use sunscreen and re-apply often
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them
- Avoid using tanning beds and sunlamps.
Many risk factors for melanoma have been found, but it’s not always clear exactly how they might cause cancer. For example, while most moles don’t turn into a melanoma, some do. Researchers have found some gene changes inside mole cells that may cause them to become melanoma cells. But it’s still not known exactly why some moles become cancerous while most don’t.
Some melanomas occur in parts of the body that are rarely exposed to sunlight such as the palm of your hand or under a nail. These melanomas often have different gene changes than those in melanomas that develop in sun-exposed areas.
Most moles will never cause any problems, but someone who has many moles is more likely to develop melanoma. If you have many moles on your skin, getting careful, routine exams by a dermatologist, along with doing monthly skin self-exams, is recommended. Watch moles, and if you notice that one has changed in color, size or shape, see your doctor promptly.
For more information about melanoma, visit cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer.