Frequently Asked Questions About Melanoma

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about melanoma.

Q: What is the skin?

A: The skin is the body's biggest organ. It keeps water and other fluids in the body. And it keeps out germs and other foreign substances. The skin has these three layers.

  • Epidermis is the top layer. It is very thin and protects the body from things such as germs that could get inside and cause harm. Melanoma forms in skin cells, called melanocytes, which are in this layer.

  • Dermis is the middle layer.

  • Subcutis is the innermost layer.

Q: What is melanoma?

A: Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in skin cells called melanocytes. It is thought to start when normal melanocytes become cancerous, called malignant. Melanoma can spread quickly to the liver, lungs, bones, and brain. It has the potential to spread anywhere in the body.

Q: What is the biggest risk factor for melanoma?

A: Most melanomas are attributed to excess exposure to sunlight. The more time people spend in the sun, especially during youth, the higher their chance of getting this type of cancer. People who have had a severe blistering sunburn--especially as a child--have a higher risk of getting melanoma. People with fair skin get skin cancer more often. There also seems to be a hereditary form of melanoma. It is not very common, though. The current thinking is that sunlight exposure and changes in genes may work together to cause melanoma.

Q: Where on the body do people usually get melanoma?

A: Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin. When it's on the skin, it's called cutaneous melanoma. Men usually get it on the front and back part of the body between the shoulders and the hips, called the trunk. They may also get it on their head or neck. Women most commonly get melanoma on their legs. Sometimes, melanoma may occur on areas of the skin that never are exposed to sunlight, such as the soles of the feet, mouth, or sinuses. Another unusual place for melanoma is under the nail beds of fingers and toes.

Q: Is melanoma preventable?

A: The best way to prevent melanoma is to avoid getting a lot of sun. When going outside, everyone should use these tips to protect themselves.

  • Apply sunscreen of SPF (sun protection factor) 15 or higher. Make sure the sunscreen contains a physical blocking agent such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Coat yourself with sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply at least once every two hours.

  • Stay inside when the sun is strongest, between 10AM and 4PM. Stay inside for longer periods if you live in an area of high sun intensity.

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat. Fabrics with a tight weave give the best sun protection. Special sun-protective clothing provides an SPF in the range of 60 to 70.

  • Wear sunglasses with UV protection.

Q: What are atypical moles or dysplastic nevi?

A: Some moles do not look the same as normal or typical moles and are more likely to become a melanoma. These abnormal moles are sometimes called dysplastic nevi. The cells in these moles are abnormal but are not yet cancerous. People may have just a few atypical moles or they may have many.

Q: Can melanoma be found early?

A: Everyone should check their skin often for any strange or changing moles or other lesions. People who have more than 50 moles or who have been told they have atypical or dysplastic moles should see a dermatologist regularly to have their skin checked.

About 10 percent of people with melanoma have family members with it. A person whose close relatives have had melanoma has a higher chance of getting it. People with a family history of melanoma need to have their skin checked by a doctor more often. They also need to take extra care to avoid the sun.

Q: What are the signs of a melanoma?

A: The first sign of melanoma may be a mole that changes in size, shape, or color. The ABCD traits that may suggest a melanoma are asymmetry, border, color, and diameter.

  • Asymmetry means that the two halves of the mole do not look the same.

  • The border or edges of a mole that is a melanoma is sometimes blurred and ragged.

  • The color of a melanoma is sometimes uneven. The color of a melanoma may be different shades of black, brown, pink, white, red, or blue.

  • The diameter is the measurement across a melanoma from one side to the other side. If a mole is melanoma, it may get bigger. Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil.

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