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Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancerous cells derive from the
cells that give skin its color, or melanin. It is the most serious form of
skin cancer - potentially deadly - and can quickly spread to other parts of
the body. It sometimes starts as a new, small, molelike growth or develops
from an existing mole. Unlike other skin cancer, melanoma may also occur in
areas of the skin that haven't been exposed to the sun.
Exposure to the sun is the major risk factor in all types of skin cancer,
but it takes only intermittent exposure to the sun, such as weekend
sun-bathing, to increase the risk of developing melanoma. Risk also
increases if you have fair skin that freckles or burns, you've had
blistering sunburns or there's a family history of the disease. Previous
cases of skin cancer also raise the risk. In addition, people who have many
moles and/or irregularly shaped moles are at higher risk.
Warning signs include a change in the size, shape or color of a mole;
scaliness of a mole; oozing or bleeding from a mole; appearance of an
itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen or tender mole; and spread of pigment from the
border of a mole into surrounding skin.
Caught early, melanoma is about 100 percent curable. Once a tumor is found,
doctors "stage" the disease to see if it's spread to other parts of the
body - this affects treatment decisions. Surgery to remove the tumor is the
standard and only potentially curative treatment. How extensive the surgery
depends on the size of the cancerous tumor, with smaller tumors needing
removal of less surrounding skin.
Radiation therapy is sometimes used, as is chemotherapy, though to a lesser
extent because of less satisfactory results.
New methods also show promise, particularly biological treatments in which
the body's own natural immune system is given a boost from materials made
by the body itself or in a lab. These materials help fight the cancer and
shrink tumors. Vaccines, gene therapy and new chemotherapy drugs also show
WebMD terms and conditions.
- Limit time spent in the sun (especially children), since most of the sun
damage that causes melanoma occurs during childhood.
- Use sunscreen of at least SPF 15 to protect against UV, UVA and UVB rays.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats and tightly woven fabrics.
- Wear sunglasses that block out 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.
- Avoid tanning booths.