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Clinical Overview

Melanoma is the most serious of all skin cancers. It is a group of cancerous tumors composed of melanocytes, the cells that produce the melanin that colors your hair, skin, and irises. In many cases, melanoma will spread to other parts of the body, causing additional malignant tumors.

People who live in the southern United States are at an increased risk for developing melanoma. The South has more than three times as many cases of melanoma than the rest of the United States due to its latitude. Slightly more men than women have melanoma. It is uncommon among African-Americans.

There are several risk factors for melanoma. Sunlight and heat can play a role in the development of this cancer. Under normal circumstances, melanocytes are converted to melanin through a slow chemical process. This process can be altered by sunlight and heat, causing the cells to become cancerous and to reproduce.

Other risk factors include: family history of the disease; lengthy sun exposure; history of sunburns; multiple pigmented skin blemishes such as freckles, moles, and light to dark spots; fair complexion; light eyes.

Melanoma, at first, is confined to the epidermis and top layers of the dermis. People should regularly check their skin for moles - those who do have a 34 to 44 percent lower risk of developing advanced melanoma. Most melanomas are flat at first, then spread laterally across the skin as they grow. These growths have an excellent chance of removal, thereby curing the disease. However, if the lesions become raised over at least part of the surface, this could indicate downward growth of the tumor into deeper layers of the skin and, possibly, the lymph nodes and blood vessels. Melanoma is much more likely than the other types of skin cancer to metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body. That is why it is so important to inspect your skin on a regular basis in addition to having a complete annual skin exam by a physician. It is also crucial to report any suspicious changes as soon as you notice them.

Last updated: Jun-10-10

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