Melanoma is a dangerous type of skin cancer that comes from cells known as melanocytes. While it’s less common than basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, two types of skin cancer that form in other types of skin cells, it is more dangerous. Melanoma can quickly spread to other organs if not treated at an early stage.
What Causes Melanoma?
Melanocytes, like basal cells or squamous cells, are skin cells. Melanocytes are found in the upper layer of the skin. They’re responsible for producing melanin, which gives the skin its unique color. The damage occurs when these skin cells are exposed to dangerous ultraviolet (UV) radiation, like from the sun or a tanning bed. When exposure occurs, it causes the melanocyte to produce more melanin, but only one of the two types. This pigment attempts to darken the skin, leading to a tan. Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, occurs when exposure to UV radiation causes DNA damage to the cells, triggering mutations in the melanocytes. This results in uncontrolled cellular growth: cancer.
Darker-skinned people naturally have higher concentrations of the eumelanin type of melanin, the type that is produced when we get a tan. This type has the ability to protect the skin from sun damage, while pheomelanin, the type more common in fair-skinned people, does not. This causes people with fair skin to be more susceptible to burning, skin damage, and skin cancer.
How Do You Spot It?
Melanoma can present in a variety of ways, so it’s important to see your dermatologist regularly and check in on any problem spots. Early detection is vital, as well as protecting from sun damage by wearing sunscreen.
Melanoma can appear in new or existing moles, in slightly-raised blotchy patches from sun-damaged skin, in lesions, or even under the nails or on the soles of feet. It starts just under the skin, then spreads if not caught.
How Common Is Melanoma?
The United States will see an estimated 197,700 cases of melanoma diagnosed this year. About half will be noninvasive in the top layer, while the other half will be invasive, penetrating deeper into the skin’s second layer and spreading.