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Melanoma ˌmel-ə-ˈnō-mə

(Malignant Melanoma)

By Gregory L. Wells, MD

Melanoma is a skin cancer that begins in the pigment-producing cells of the skin (melanocytes).

  • Melanomas can begin on normal skin or in existing moles.

  • They may be irregular, flat or raised brown patches of skin with spots of different colors or firm black or gray lumps.

  • To diagnose melanoma, doctors do a biopsy.

  • Melanomas are removed, and if they have spread, chemotherapy drugs are used.

Melanocytes are the pigment-producing cells in the skin that give skin its distinctive color. Sunlight stimulates melanocytes to produce more melanin (the pigment that darkens the skin) and increases the risk of melanoma.

Each year in the United States, more than 76,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma and about 10,000 people die from it. Although melanoma accounts for less than 5% of all skin cancers diagnosed in the United States, it causes the most skin cancer deaths. Every hour, one person in the United States dies of melanoma.

Melanoma usually begins on normal skin as a new, small, pigmented growth, most often on sun-exposed areas. About one in three melanomas develops in a preexisting mole. Melanoma may also occur around and inside the eyes, in the mouth, on the genitals and rectal areas, in the brain, and in the nail beds.

Melanoma readily spreads (metastasizes) to distant parts of the body, where it continues to grow and destroy tissue.

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