Overview of Melanoma

Malignant melanoma is an accelerated, metastatic type of skin cancer that originates in the cells of the epidermis. In this condition, pigment-producing cells called melanocytes become cancerous, grow, and multiply.

Melanoma cells are more likely than non-melanoma skin cancer cells to spread or metastasize, which means that they break away from the original tumor, travel through the blood or lymphatic vessels, and then grow within other parts of the body. The most well-documented risk factor for malignant melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, but just how UV rays stimulate the cancerous transformation of melanocytes is still unknown.

Melanoma is an increasingly common type of skin cancer that is highly curable but potentially fatal. In the United States, the incidence of melanoma has increased more rapidly than any other cancer, especially during the past 30 years. In 1935, people in the United States had a lifetime melanoma risk of 1 in 1500, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2004, the risk for melanoma had risen to approximately 1 in 71.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 76,000 melanoma cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2014, and approximately 9,710 people are expected to die from the disease. Melanoma is the number one cancer-related cause of death in women between the age of 25 and 30.

While the incidence of melanoma is rising dramatically, the number of deaths caused by the disease remains relatively constant since the 1990s. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but early detection, reinforced by public awareness programs, is at least partially responsible for the relatively high survival rate.

Melanoma affects equal numbers of men and women and can develop on any part of the body. It usually appears after age 50, although it can develop at any age. People with light skin are more likely to develop melanoma than dark-skinned people.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 04 Jun 2014