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Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It begins when pigment-producing (color-producing) cells, called melanocytes, begin to change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). Melanoma can appear in an area no different from the surrounding skin, or it can develop from or near a mole. It is found most frequently on the back or on a woman's legs, but melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, including the head and neck. This section describes melanoma of the skin. Learn more about basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, melanoma of the eye, and anorectal melanoma.
The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects against infection and injury and helps regulate body temperature. The skin also stores water and fat and produces vitamin D. Skin is made up of two main layers: the epidermis (outer layer of skin) and the dermis (inner layer of skin). The deeper layer of the epidermis contains melanocytes. Melanoma starts in melanocytes and is the most aggressive type of skin cancer. It can grow deep into the dermis, invading lymph and blood vessels. The initial type of treatment is determined by the thickness of the tumor.
Treatment of the primary (initial) melanoma usually involves surgery, which often cures early stage or thin melanoma. After removal of the primary melanoma, additional surgery may be needed to make sure that the melanoma will not come back in the same area and to find out if the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes (tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection). This surgery, using mapping techniques called sentinel lymph node mapping can help estimate risk and help the doctor decide if immunotherapy or radiation therapy, and for the most advanced stages, chemotherapy may be needed. More details can be found in the Treatment section. Researchers are also investigating new ways to treat advanced melanoma, including targeted therapy, gene therapy, and vaccine therapy. For more information on these treatments, read the Current Research section.
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In 2009, an estimated 68,720 adults (39,080 men and 29,640 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma. It is estimated that 8,650 deaths (5,500 men and 3,100 women) from this disease will occur this year.
Melanoma accounts for about 5% of skin cancer cases and a majority of skin cancer deaths. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer among men and the sixth most common cancer in women. Sometimes, melanoma is found in children and adolescents. Melanoma rates are more than 10 times higher in white people than black people.
The five-year relative survival rate (percentage of people who survive at least five years after the cancer is detected, excluding those who die from other diseases) of people with melanoma is 91%. If melanoma is found before it has spread, the five-year relative survival rate is 99%. The five-year relative survival rate if melanoma is found to have regional and distant spread is 65% and 16%, respectively.
Cancer survival statistics should be interpreted with caution. These estimates are based on data from thousands of cases of this type of cancer in the United States each year, but the actual risk for a particular individual may differ. It is not possible to tell a person how long he or she will live with melanoma. Because the survival statistics are measured in five-year intervals, they may not represent recent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer.
Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society's publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2009.
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- Risk Factors and Prevention
- Staging With Illustrations
- After Treatment
- Questions to Ask the Doctor
- Current Research
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