You've probably heard about the most common types of skin cancer, but you might still have questions. Chances are someone you know has been affected by melanoma, and experiences vary from person to person. So, what is melanoma, who gets it, and what can you do to lower the risk that this dangerous cancer poses?

What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma is one of the most serious types of skin cancer. This disease occurs when melanocytes—the pigment-producing cells that give us our skin, eye, and hair color—are damaged, grow uncontrollably, and form a tumor that can spread to other areas of the body over time.

How Common Is Melanoma?

According to the American Cancer Society's projections, the nation can expect more than 100,350 new cases of melanoma in 2020. This rate is higher than the rates of cancer in many other major organs including bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, and ovaries.

Melanoma is predicted to take the lives of 6,850 people this year—approximately 19 people per day.

While these statistics are grim, acknowledging the threat is always the first step to preventing the problem.

Who Gets Melanoma?

Melanoma can occur in anyone at any time, but it most commonly affects individuals with fair skin—particularly those with a history of sun exposure, sunburns, and tanning bed use. Although men 50 and older have a higher risk than the general population, mostly due to cumulative sun damage, melanoma rates are rising in other age groups. As of 2018, melanoma became the second most common form of cancer in women ages 15 to 29.

Other risk factors include having more than 50 moles, a propensity for atypical moles, a family history of melanoma, and a personal history of nonmelanoma skin cancer.

What Should You Look For?

Melanoma usually looks like a mole that is irregular in shape, size, and color compared to your other moles. It often appears or changes quickly, and mostly occurs in sun-exposed areas, such as the head, neck, torso, arms, and legs.

However, in individuals with darker skin, melanoma is more likely to appear in areas the sun doesn't touch, such as the mouth, palms of the hands, bottoms of the feet, genital area, and nailbeds.

How Is Melanoma Treated?

The outlook is best when caught early, before it spreads to the lymph nodes. The five-year survival rate for those with superficial melanoma—meaning it's only spreading across the skin's top layer— is 98 percent. For patients with melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 64 percent.

For any suspicious lesions, a Dermatologist will first take a sample to confirm the diagnosis and determine the depth of the melanoma. Once an individual is diagnosed with melanoma, they will be treated according to the stage and development of the cancer. For individuals who have only skin-limited melanoma, treatment involves excision of the affected tissue. If the cancer is detected deeper, additional treatments such as a lymph node biopsy and dissection are needed to determine the extent of the spread. In individuals whose lymph nodes are affected, additional treatment including radiation or chemotherapy may be required.

What Can You Do to Reduce Your Risk?

Given that the biggest risk factor for melanoma is sun exposure and accumulated damage, protecting your skin while in the sun is key. Dermatologists recommend wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day. Try to avoid direct sun exposure between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. when the sun is strongest. When practical, wear protective clothing with long sleeves and pants along with a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Also, avoid indoor tanning beds—if you want a bronzed look, consider self-tanning lotions or tinted sunscreens instead.

Though prevention is key, the next best thing is early detection. Be sure to perform monthly self-skin checks and have a professional full-body skin check once per year, especially after age 45. Your Dermatologist may even suggest more frequent check-ups depending on your skin type risk levels. Many organizations recommend looking for the "ABCDEs" when evaluating moles and other skin lesions:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color
  • Diameter
  • Evolving

See the American Academy of Dermatology's full resource on this method for some great images and descriptions of the kinds of skin features that you should be on the lookout for.

If you do notice a new mole or mark on your skin that changes, itches, or bleeds, or otherwise differs from your others, you should make an appointment to see a board-certified Dermatologist as soon as possible. They'll be up on the latest studies and information regarding all types of skin conditions, so don't pass up the opportunity to meet with an expert—it could make all the difference.