Melanoma Facts, Risk Factors, and Symptoms

Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer 1 that accounts for 75-90% of all skin cancer-related deaths. Unlike other skin cancers, melanoma is prone to spreading. As a result, cancer can spread to other parts of your body. 

Why Melanoma Develops

The outermost layer of the skin is called the epidermis. The epidermis contains cells called melanocytes 2. Melanocytes produce melanin, the material that gives color or pigment to your skin, hair, and eyes. Melanoma happens when your melanocytes become cancerous.

Risk Factors

The complex interaction of one or more of these environmental or genetic risk factors 3 increases one’s risk of developing melanoma:

  • Fair skin: Research shows that fair-skinned people are prone to melanoma. To that, people with red hair, freckles, light eyes, skin sensitivity, and an inability to tan are at increased risk of developing melanoma. The reason for this is melanin, or a lack thereof. Melanin acts as a protective barrier for the outer layer of the skin against harmful UV rays. 
  • Ultraviolet (UV) exposure: Exposure to UV radiation is the leading environmental risk for developing melanoma 4. UV radiation has natural and artificial sources. For instance, sunlight and sunbathing are natural sources of UV radiation, while tanning is an artificial source. Artificial exposure gives more exposure to UV radiation than natural exposure. UV rays can provide vitamin d; however, it can also lead to early skin aging and damage. 
  • Sunburning: Intermittent or intense burning during short exposure to UV is another environmental risk factor.
  • Atypical moles: Moles associated with melanoma risks depend on the number, size, and type. For instance, people with more than 100 moles have a seven-fold risk of developing melanoma. Additionally, big moles that are flat or with atypical pigmentation or outlines can be cancerous.
  • Family history: A familial history of this form of skin cancer is a significant risk factor for the disease. 
  • Genetic predisposition: Gene abnormalities are another risk factor. The mutation of a gene or protein 5 is associated with different types of cancers. In some cases, the genetic disposition is hereditary. Genetic predispositions are associated with the younger development of certain cancers.
  • Immunosuppression: Procedures and conditions like organ transplants and HIV/AIDS suppress the immune system. When this happens, tumors can grow and metastasize. 

Signs and Symptoms

The most common sign and symptom of melanoma is a new or unusual growth or pigmented skin lesions (moles). These moles can change in color, shape, and size and appear anywhere on your body. Consult with your healthcare provider if you notice any new, unusual, or concerning skin growths.