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Melanoma of the Skin

A disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in melanocytes (cells that color the skin).

PubMed Health Glossary
(Source: NIH - National Cancer Institute)

About Melanoma of the Skin

Melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in melanocytes (cells that color the skin).

The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. Skin also helps control body temperature and stores water, fat, and vitamin D. The skin has several layers, but the two main layers are the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer). Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, which is made up of three kinds of cells:

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Photos of Moles
NIH - National Cancer Institute

What works? Research summarized

Evidence reviews

Treatments for melanoma (an aggressive type of skin cancer) that has spread to other tissues.

There are no randomised trials comparing the effects of systemic therapies for metastatic cutaneous melanoma with best supportive care or placebo. Cutaneous melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. When it has spread (metastatic cutaneous melanoma), the prognosis is very poor. Current practice, based upon the results of non comparative studies, is to use different forms of chemotherapy (anti cancer drugs) as well as drugs that try to affect the immune system's response to the cancer. Combinations of these two types of therapy have improved the outcome in some forms of cancers, and are used for melanoma. However the review found no trials which compared the outcome of treatments, used alone or in combination, with the outcome of best supportive care or placebo.

Interventions for preventing of non‐melanoma skin cancers in high‐risk groups

Non‐melanoma skin cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK, the United States and Australia. People at increased risk of getting non‐melanoma skin cancer include those with lowered immunity, a history of non‐melanoma skin cancer, rare inherited genetic skin disorders, trauma to the skin, exposure to arsenic, albinism or having had psoralen and ultraviolet A treatment. Very few studies have been conducted in people at increased risk of NMSC.

Currently there is no clear evidence that cholesterol drugs reduce melanoma risk.

Some studies have suggested that medicines (such as statins and fibrates) taken to lower blood cholesterol may reduce the risk of melanoma skin cancer. Our review of 16 studies did not find any clear evidence to support such a suggestion, but we cannot exclude a useful effect of such drugs until more studies become available.

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Summaries for consumers

Treatments for melanoma (an aggressive type of skin cancer) that has spread to other tissues.

There are no randomised trials comparing the effects of systemic therapies for metastatic cutaneous melanoma with best supportive care or placebo. Cutaneous melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. When it has spread (metastatic cutaneous melanoma), the prognosis is very poor. Current practice, based upon the results of non comparative studies, is to use different forms of chemotherapy (anti cancer drugs) as well as drugs that try to affect the immune system's response to the cancer. Combinations of these two types of therapy have improved the outcome in some forms of cancers, and are used for melanoma. However the review found no trials which compared the outcome of treatments, used alone or in combination, with the outcome of best supportive care or placebo.

The course of non-melanoma skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. Basal cell cancer is the most common kind of skin cancer, but it usually grows slowly. Squamous cell cancer is somewhat more aggressive. Most of these tumors are discovered before they spread to other parts of the body, though.Basal cell cancerBasal cell cancer (basal cell carcinoma) mainly affects people over the age of 40 and is most commonly found on the face, neck or other parts of the head that are frequently exposed to sunlight. It usually grows slowly and stays in the area where it first developed. So it is generally discovered at a stage where it can be completely removed in surgery. But it is still not totally harmless: if it is only treated at a later stage, or not treated at all, it can enter deeper layers of tissue. This can cause damage to things like your nose, eyes and facial bones.Basal cell cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body (metastasis), so it is rarely fatal. Only about 1 out of 1,000 people who have basal cell cancer die of it.Squamous cell cancerSquamous cell cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) is particularly common in older people over the age of 60. It nearly always develops on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, especially on the face, ears, lower lip and the back of your hands.Like basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer grows where it first developed, damaging nearby tissue. But it is more aggressive than basal cell cancer, particularly if it grows in an old scar, a sore, or on your lips or ears.If left untreated, there is a danger that the cancer might spread to other parts of the body. But most squamous cell cancer tumors are discovered before metastases develop. Then it is usually quite easy to treat them. About 40 to 50 out of 1,000 people with this type of cancer die of it.

Detecting non-melanoma skin cancer

In order to detect non-melanoma skin cancer, you can either check your skin for abnormalities yourself or have a doctor examine it. Non-melanoma skin cancer can be treated more effectively if it is detected before it spreads to other parts of the body.It can be worrying if a spot on your skin changes in size, shape, color or looks abnormal. A lot of people know that changes like this could be a sign of skin cancer. But most suspicious-looking areas of skin are harmless.The older you get, the more your skin changes, and new moles or age spots (solar lentigo) may develop. This is a normal part of aging. So some people decide to wait and keep an eye on any skin abnormalities. It is only rarely a serious medical condition.Carefully checking your skin on a regular basis is a good way to notice any changes, or any wounds that do not heal as quickly as usual. It isn’t always easy to know what is normal and what isn’t. If you find something that looks abnormal to you, it is best to have your doctor inspect it more closely if it does not go away after four to eight weeks. Skin cancer is not usually painful in early stages. If it does hurt, the cancer may have already reached an advanced stage.

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Terms to know

Basal Cells
A small, round cell found in the lower part (or base) of the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin.
Cutaneous
Having to do with the skin.
Dysplastic Nevus
A type of nevus (mole) that looks different from a common mole. A dysplastic nevus is often larger with borders that are not easy to see. Its color is usually uneven and can range from pink to dark brown. Parts of the mole may be raised above the skin surface.
Melanin
A pigment that gives color to skin and eyes and helps protect it from damage by ultraviolet light.
Melanocytes
A cell in the skin and eyes that produces and contains the pigment called melanin.
Nevus (Mole)
A benign (not cancer) growth on the skin that is formed by a cluster of melanocytes (cells that make a substance called melanin, which gives color to skin and eyes).
Skin
The outer covering of the body that protects it from the environment.
Skin Cancer
Cancer that forms in the tissues of the skin. There are several types of skin cancer.
Squamous Cells
Flat cell that looks like a fish scale under a microscope. These cells cover inside and outside surfaces of the body. They are found in the tissues that form the surface of the skin, the lining of the hollow organs of the body (such as the bladder, kidney, and uterus), and the passages of the respiratory and digestive tracts.

More about Melanoma of the Skin

Photo of an adult

Also called: Cutaneous melanoma, Cutaneous malignant melanoma, Malignant melanoma of the skin, Skin melanoma

Other terms to know: See all 9
Basal Cells, Cutaneous, Dysplastic Nevus

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