What is Melanoma?

Doctor examines spot on patients skin.

The skin is the largest organ in the body, and skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. There are three main types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Of these, melanoma is the most dangerous. While it accounts for only about 1% of all skin cancers diagnosed in the United States, it has the highest mortality rate of all skin cancers. It’s estimated that this year melanoma will cause 7,230 deaths, or approximately one death per hour. Melanoma has been on the rise over the last 30 years, particularly among young adults, and is 20 times more common in white people than in African-Americans.

The word melanoma is derived from melanocyte, the type of cell it affects. Melanocytes produce the pigment (coloring) of your skin, which is called melanin.

The greatest risk factor for melanoma is prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet radiation (UV) emitted by the sun. During the summer months, we spend a lot of time outdoors. That’s why it's important to do everything you can to protect your skin, even on overcast days. Make sure you apply and reapply sunscreen frequently and wear protective gear, such as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Remember that every sunburn increases your chances of developing skin cancer later in life.

You should also avoid indoor tanning beds, which can also increase your risk for melanoma and many other skin cancers. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes tanning beds as carcinogenic — just as likely as cigarettes, asbestos and arsenic to cause cancer.

Routine skin screening performed by your primary care physician or a dermatologist can help detect skin cancer in its early stages, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

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