What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is usually, but not always, a cancer of the skin. It begins in melanocytes – the cells that produce the pigment melanin that colors the skin, hair and eyes. Melanocytes also form moles, where melanoma often develops. Having moles can be a risk factor for melanoma, but it’s important to remember that most moles do not become melanoma.

There are three general categories of melanoma:

  • Mucosal Melanoma can occur in any mucous membrane of the body, including the nasal passages, the throat, the vagina, the anus, or in the mouth

  • Ocular Melanoma, also known as uveal melanoma or choroidal melanoma, is a rare form of melanoma that occurs in the eye. Learn more about CURE OM, the MRF’s initiative focused on ocular melanoma

Unlike other cancers, melanoma can often be seen on the skin, making it easier to detect in its early stages. If left undetected, however, melanoma can spread to distant sites or distant organs. Once melanoma has spread to other parts of the body (known as stage IV), it is referred to as metastatic melanoma, and is very difficult to treat. In its later stages, melanoma most commonly spreads to the liver, lungs, bones and brain; at this point, the prognosis is very poor.

What Causes Melanoma?

Research suggests that approximately 90% of melanoma cases can be linked to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from natural or artificial sources, such as sunlight and indoor tanning beds. However, since melanoma can occur in all melanocytes throughout the body, even those that are never exposed to the sun, UV light cannot be solely responsible for a diagnosis, especially mucosal and ocular melanoma cases. Current research points to a combination of family history, genetics and environmental factors that are also to blame. Taking steps to prevent melanoma is therefore the best first step in protecting yourself and your skin. It is important to learn about all of the risk factors. 

Risk Factors for Melanoma

Talk to family members and your doctor about whether you are at an increased risk and the steps you can take to prevent melanoma. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in women 25 to 30 years old and the second leading cause of cancer death in women 30 to 35 years old. To learn more about Risk Factors for Melanoma, CLICK HERE.