Melanoma Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is melanoma?
  2. How common is melanoma?
  3. Where does melanoma usually appear on the body?
  4. What are the risk factors for melanoma?
  5. What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma?
  6. I have a lot of moles. Am I at higher risk of developing melanoma?
  7. Are there different types of melanoma?
  8. How is melanoma diagnosed?
  9. What are the stages for melanoma?
  10. What is the treatment for melanoma?
  11. Is melanoma curable?
  12. What treatment outcomes can I expect based on the stage of cancer I have?
  13. Will my melanoma recur?
  14. Since I have melanoma, do members of my family need to be tested?

1. What is melanoma?
Malignant melanoma is the result of an abnormal growth of melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, the pigment giving color to the skin. Unlike more common skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma can spread to other organs, making treatment more challenging. Although rare, melanoma can originate in pigmented tissues other than the skin: in the eye, for example, or in an internal organ. Melanoma that appears on the skin is called cutaneous melanoma.

2. How common is melanoma?
According to the National Cancer Institute, the percentage of people who develop melanoma has more than doubled in the United States over the past 30 years. Melanoma is the sixth most common type of new cancer diagnosis in American men and the seventh most common type in American women. The incidence rate for invasive melanoma, the most serious form, is highest in whites, who are almost 30 times more likely to develop melanoma than African Americans. Hispanics are also at a much lower risk of developing the disease than are whites. Men aged 65 or older are more than twice as likely to develop melanoma as women in the same age group.

3. Where does melanoma usually appear on the body?
For people with moles, any mole anywhere on the body has the potential to develop into melanoma, which is why regular monitoring of these growths is important. Usually, in fair-skinned women, melanoma appears most frequently on the lower legs or arms. In fair-skinned men, melanoma appears more frequently on the trunk or on the head and neck. In individuals with darker skin, melanoma tends to appear more often on the palms, the soles of the feet and the skin under the nails.

   [Back to Top]

4. What are the risk factors for melanoma?
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) is the only known environmental risk factor for developing melanoma of the skin. Read about other risk factors.

5. What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma?
Moles (benign growths of melanocytes) are far more common than melanomas, and differentiating between these can be difficult, even for experts. Any growth on the skin that is new or changing is best evaluated by your health-care provider. Additionally, itching (pruritus) of a new or existing mole, ulceration or bleeding from a mole can be early symptoms of melanoma.
 
The following "ABCDE" guidelines can help determine the need for additional evaluation:

  • Asymmetry - one half of the spot does not match the other
  • Border Irregularity - the edges are uneven or blurred
  • Color - the color is uneven or has shades of different colors
  • Diameter - the area is more than five millimeters in size (about the size of a pencil eraser)
  • Evolving - changing in any way including bleeding, itching or appearance

6. I have a lot of moles. Am I at higher risk of developing melanoma?
Yes. It is important to watch for any changes in the appearance of these moles, called either benign nevi or atypical nevi, by your health care provider. Medical researchers estimate that persons with more than 100 nevi have a seven-fold greater risk of developing melanoma than those with fewer nevi. Patients with five or more atypical nevi have a seven-fold risk for melanoma compared to those with no atypical nevi. Having multiple moles or nevi is a higher risk factor for melanoma than having light-colored hair and fair skin.

   [Back to Top]

7. Are there different types of melanoma?
Yes and some are more common than others. The most common form is called superficial spreading melanoma.

  • Superficial spreading melanoma — About 70 percent of patients diagnosed with melanoma have this common form. This type of cancer tends to enlarge gradually on the surface of the skin before growing into deeper layers of skin.
     
  • Nodular melanomas — This type comprises 15 percent of melanomas. These melanomas are invasive (growing into deeper layers of skin) soon after they appear on the skin.
     
  • Acral-lentiginous melanomas — About 8 percent of patients have acral-lentiginous melanomas. This is the most common type of melanoma in dark-skinned individuals. It appears on the palms, nail beds, soles of the feet, mucous membranes and penis.
     
  • Lentigo maligna melanomas — This type, developing in approximately 5 percent of patients with melanoma, is directly related to sun exposure. Most cases arise in adults, primarily in the head and neck region. It is a slow growing form that can take many years before becoming invasive (growing into deeper layers of skin).
     
  • Amelanotic melanomas — The least common form — the amelanotic melanomas — are those without pigmentation. This type is difficult to diagnose because of the lack of color, yet they still show changes in symmetry, borders and size.

8. How is melanoma diagnosed?
A definitive diagnosis of melanoma is made with an excisional biopsy that removes the mole and a margin of tissue surrounding it, or with a "punch" biopsy of the thickest part of the mole if it is large or in a difficult anatomical area to reach. These biopsies are outpatient procedures performed in your doctor's office. A pathologist will look at the sample under a microscope and determine if the cells are cancerous. The biopsy sample allows the pathologist to determine the stage of disease, upon which treatment decisions are then made.

9. What are the stages for melanoma?
Staging is a method clinicians use to categorize melanomas for the purpose of evaluation, treatment and prognosis. Virginia Mason uses the staging system developed by the American Joint Commission on Cancer (AJCC) that assigns categories based on tumor (T), lymph node (N) and metastatic (M) status. Melanomas are also assigned an anatomic level or "Clark's level" I to IV as a description of tumor depth into the skin.

In addition, staging of cancer may include the following descriptions:

  • Stage I and stage II: Melanoma is confined to the site where the cancer occurred and has not spread to the lymph nodes or internal organs.
  • Stage III: Melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: Melanoma has spread to distant organs (metastasis).

   [Back to Top]

10. What is the treatment for melanoma?
Melanoma treatment decisions are based on the location and stage of the tumor, and factors specific to the individual patient. At Virginia Mason, a dedicated treatment team may include dermatologists, nurses, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, social workers and surgeons. An oncology nurse coordinator assists each patient throughout his or her treatment course, from referral to recovery. A treatment plan may include:

  • Surgery - including wide margin removal and reconstruction of the tumor site, sentinel lymph node biopsy, removal of lymph nodes or metastases
     
  • Chemotherapy/immunotherapy
     
  • Radiation therapy
     
  • Surveillance
     
  • Vaccine therapy
     
  • Clinical trials

11. Is melanoma curable?
Like many other cancers, melanoma is potentially curable when caught at an early stage. Once you have had melanoma, however, you are at a higher risk than the general population of developing a new primary melanoma, as well as a recurrence of the original melanoma. This is why it is important for you to have regular check-ups that include lifelong surveillance from your health care providers.

12. What treatment outcomes can I expect based on the stage of cancer I have?
As is true for many types of cancer, melanoma diagnosed and treated at its earliest stages - when the disease has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites in the body - has the best chance of a cure. Five and 10-year survival rates for early-stage disease approach 90 percent and higher. Those survival rates gradually go down, however, in the presence of more advanced disease. Your health care providers are best positioned to answer your questions based on the stage of melanoma you have.

   [Back to Top]

13. Will my melanoma recur?
Questions about recurrence are commonly asked by cancer survivors. For patients with melanoma, the risk of developing a second primary melanoma is higher than the risk of people in the general population developing a first melanoma. Patients with melanoma are also at risk of recurrence of their original cancer. Second primary melanomas develop at a rate of approximately 0.5 percent per year for the first five years and at a lower rate thereafter. The incidence of a second primary tumor is especially high in patients aged 15 to 39 or 65 to 79. For these reasons, patients are generally followed closely by their dermatologist and oncologist after the initial treatment for cancer.

The most common site of recurrence of the first cancer is in the regional lymph nodes (46 percent), followed by recurrence at or near the original tumor site (30 percent), and at distant sites (24 percent). Current follow-up recommendations include at least annual, lifelong comprehensive skin examinations for all melanoma patients, including those with stage 0 disease (melanoma in situ). Patients with more advanced disease should have more frequent exams and imaging (X-ray, CT scan) studies. As with primary melanoma diagnoses, more than 70 percent of melanoma recurrences are detected by the patient or a family member.

14. Since I have melanoma, do members of my family need to be tested?
There are genetic variants - gene mutations - that make some individuals prone to developing melanoma. These mutations occur in the genes CDKN2A and CDK4 that code for proteins regulating cell division. Individuals with these mutations have a strong family history of melanoma and carry a 60 to 90 percent lifetime risk of developing the disease. Virginia Mason offers a hereditary cancer risk assessment for cancer patients with a personal or family history of cancer.

   [Back to Top]