Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs in melanocytes, the cells that give the skin its color. Melanoma is a more serious type of cancer than other common skin cancers, because it can spread to other parts of the body through the lymph system or the blood.
The first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape, or color of a mole, but melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole. Any change in a mole including oozing or bleeding, or feeling different—tender, itchy, or hard—should be discussed with your doctor.
"High-risk" melanoma is melanoma that has a high probability of coming back (a recurrence). The risk of recurrence is related to the thickness of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. Any tumor that is greater than 4 millimeters thick (approximately 1/6 of an inch) or that has spread to the tissue below the skin or to a lymph node (part of the body's immune system) is considered a "high-risk" melanoma.
Although no one knows exactly what causes melanoma, one of the main risk factors seems to be exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can happen from too much sun, or even overuse of tanning booths. People who are exposed to intense sun over a short period of time ("weekend tanners") are more at risk for melanoma than people such as farmers or sailors, who have a more regular daily sun exposure.
While melanoma can occur in people with darker skin, people with fair skin who tend to sunburn or freckle easily are at greater risk—especially those with red or blonde hair. Painful, blistering sunburns, especially in childhood or adolescence, can put people at greater risk. Melanoma also can run in families, especially those with a tendency to develop many abnormally sized or shaped moles all over the body.
Treatment for melanoma is based on the age and general health of the person, and the stage of the disease (how far along the cancer is). Surgery is the first treatment for any stage melanoma, and can cure people with small, thin melanomas that have not spread to other parts of the body.
Patients with later-stage disease or higher-risk melanoma will receive additional treatment after surgery. Therapy "in addition to" other therapy is called "adjuvant" therapy. It can be chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy (sometimes called biological therapy). Patients will generally be treated by an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating those with cancer.