Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in the United States. Although it accounts for less than 2 percent of skin cancer cases, it’s responsible for most skin cancer deaths. When melanoma spreads to other areas, it’s called metastatic melanoma.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 76,100 Americans will receive a melanoma diagnosis this year, and 9,710 will die from the disease. Former President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed in August.
Melanoma occurs when something goes wrong in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that colors the skin. Normal skin cells grow in an orderly fashion. If they develop DNA damage, they can grow out of control and form tumors.
The exact cause of melanoma is unclear, but doctors think there are genetic and environmental factors. Exposure to ultraviolet rays — from the sun or tanning lamps — is the leading cause of melanoma. It’s not the only cause, however, since the cancer can occur in places that are not exposed to sunlight.
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body. It usually occurs on the back, face, arms or legs. It can also occur in areas that get little sun exposure like the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. This “hidden melanoma” is more common in dark-skinned people.
The first sign of melanoma is a new or unusual skin growth or a change in an existing mole. Swollen lymph nodes and under-the-skin lumps are other symptoms. Sometimes, melanoma is discovered only after it has metastasized, as was the case for Carter. Doctors diagnosed his melanoma after it had spread to his liver.
Melanoma can travel to areas too. The most common affected areas are the digestive tract, urinary tract, vagina, genitals, mouth, eye and scalp. Hidden melanoma can occur in unusual places like the nail bed or between the toes.
Skin cancer screenings are available for people with risk factors for melanoma. The risk factors include fair or freckled skin, unusual moles, excessive sun exposure, past sunburn, a weak immune system and a family history of melanoma.
Screenings includes professional, head-to-toe skin exams and self-exams. Doctors use three types of skin biopsy to diagnose cancer. Metastatic melanoma requires imaging tests to confirm the cancer.
After diagnosis, melanoma is staged to determine treatment options. Stage I melanoma is small and responds well to treatment. Metastatic melanoma, a stage IV cancer, is a serious condition that can affect the heart, lungs, liver, brain and other organs.
Doctors use surgery to treat early-stage melanoma. Radiation, chemotherapy, biological and targeted therapy treats metastatic melanoma. Doctors also perform surgery for stage IV patients to remove tumors or lymph nodes.
Since metastatic skin cancer can’t be cured, treatments are used to slow cancer growth and make patients more comfortable. It’s important for people with advanced cancer to seek support and learn about treatments so they can make the most of their lives.