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Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It is the leading cause of death from skin disease. It is caused by changes in cells called melanocytes, which produce a skin pigment called melanin. Melanin is responsible for skin and hair color. It can appear on normal skin, or it may begin as a mole or other area that has changed in appearance. Some moles that are present at birth may develop into melanomas.

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There are four major types of melanoma:
  • Superficial spreading melanoma is the most common type. It is usually flat and irregular in shape and color, with different shades of black and brown. It is most common in Caucasians.
  • Nodular melanoma usually starts as a raised area that is dark blackish-blue or bluish-red. However, some do not have any color.
  •  Lentigo maligna melanoma usually occurs in the elderly. It is most common in sun-damaged skin on the face, neck, and arms. The abnormal skin areas are usually large, flat, and tan with areas of brown.
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma is the least common form. It usually occurs on the palms, soles, or under the nails and is more common in African Americans.
Melanoma is not as common as other types of skin cancer. However, the rate of melanoma is steadily increasing. The risk of developing melanoma increases with age. However, it is also frequently seen in young people.

You are more likely to develop melanoma if you:
    Have fair skin, blue or green eyes, or red or blond hair
    Live in sunny climates or at high altitudes
    Spent a lot of time in high levels of strong sunlight, because of a job or other activities
    Have had one or more blistering sunburns during childhood
    Use tanning devices

Other risk factors include:
    Close relatives with a history of melanoma
    Certain types of moles (atypical dysplastic) or multiple birthmarks
    Weakened immune system due to disease or medication


A mole, sore, lump, or growth on the skin can be a sign of melanoma or other skin cancer. A sore or growth that bleeds, or changes in skin coloring may also be a sign of skin cancer.

The ABCDE system can help you remember possible symptoms of melanoma:
  • Asymmetry: One half of the abnormal area is different from the other half.
  • Borders: The edges of the growth are irregular.
  • Color: Color changes from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown, or black, and sometimes white, red, or blue. A mixture of colors may appear within one sore.
  • Diameter: The spot is usually (but not always) larger than 6 mm in diameter -- about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolution: The mole keeps changing appearance.
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The key to successfully treating melanoma is recognizing symptoms early. You might not notice a small spot if you don't look carefully. Have yearly body checks by your plastic surgeon, and examine your skin once a month. Use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see places. Call your plastic surgeon if you notice anything unusual.

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