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Melanoma/Skin Cancer Health Center

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Melanoma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - General Information About Melanoma

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from melanoma in the United States in 2013:[1]

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  • New cases: 76,690.
  • Deaths: 9,480.

Risk Factors

The incidence of melanoma has been increasing over the past four decades. Risk factors for melanoma include the following:

  • Sun exposure.
  • Pigmentary characteristics.
  • Multiple nevi.
  • Family and personal prior history of melanoma.
  • Immunosuppression.
  • Environmental exposures.

(Refer to the PDQ summary on Genetics of Skin Cancer for more information about risk factors.)

Melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes, which are the cells that make the pigment melanin and are derived from the neural crest. Although most melanomas arise in the skin, they may also arise from mucosal surfaces or at other sites to which neural crest cells migrate. Melanoma occurs predominantly in adults, and more than 50% of the cases arise in apparently normal areas of the skin. Early signs in a nevus that would suggest malignant change include darker or variable discoloration, itching, an increase in size, or the development of satellites. Ulceration or bleeding are later signs. Melanoma in women occurs more commonly on the extremities and in men, it occurs most commonly on the trunk or head and neck, but it can arise from any site on the skin surface. A biopsy, preferably by local excision, should be performed for any suspicious lesions, and the specimens should be examined by an experienced pathologist to allow for microstaging. Suspicious lesions should never be shaved off or cauterized. Studies show that distinguishing between benign pigmented lesions and early melanomas can be difficult, and even experienced dermatopathologists can have differing opinions. To reduce the possibility of misdiagnosis for an individual patient, a second review by an independent qualified pathologist should be considered.[2]

Prognosis is affected by clinical and histological factors and by anatomic location of the lesion. Thickness and/or level of invasion of the melanoma, mitotic index, presence of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes, number of regional lymph nodes involved, and ulceration or bleeding at the primary site affect the prognosis.[3,4,5,6] Microscopic satellites in stage I melanoma may be a poor prognostic histologic factor, but this is controversial.[7] Patients who are younger, female, and who have melanomas on the extremities generally have a better prognosis.[3,4,5,6]

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