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Melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin cells called melanocytes (cells that color the skin).
Melanocytes are found throughout the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.
Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.
The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. The skin has 2 main layers: the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer).
There are 3 types of skin cancer:
When melanoma starts in the skin, the disease is called cutaneous melanoma. Melanoma may also occur in mucous membranes (thin, moist layers of tissue that cover surfaces such as the lips). This PDQ summary is about cutaneous (skin) melanoma and melanoma that affects the mucous membranes. When melanoma occurs in the eye, it is called intraocular or ocular melanoma. (See the PDQ summary on Intraocular (Eye) Melanoma Treatment for more information.)
Melanoma is more aggressive than basal cell skin cancer or squamous cell skin cancer. (See the PDQ summary on Skin Cancer Treatment for more information on basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer.)
Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body.
In men, melanoma is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, melanoma forms most often on the arms and legs. Melanoma is most common in adults, but it is sometimes found in children and adolescents. See the PDQ summary on Unusual Cancers of Childhood for more information on melanoma in children and adolescents.)
Unusual moles, exposure to sunlight, and health history can affect the risk of developing melanoma.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk for melanoma. Risk factors for melanoma include the following:
Being white or having a fair complexion increases the risk of melanoma, but anyone can have melanoma, including people with dark skin.
Possible signs of melanoma include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area.
These and other symptoms may be caused by melanoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
For pictures and descriptions of common moles and melanoma, see Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma.
Tests that examine the skin are used to detect (find) and diagnose melanoma.
If a mole or pigmented area of the skin changes or looks abnormal, the following tests and procedures can help find and diagnose melanoma:
A biopsy should be done on any abnormal areas of the skin. These areas should not be shaved off or cauterized (destroyed with a hot instrument, an electric current, or a caustic substance).
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
After melanoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the skin or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the skin or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. Talk with your doctor about what the stage of your cancer is.
The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
The results of these tests are viewed together with the results of the tumor biopsy to find out the stage of the melanoma.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:
When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.
The method used to stage melanoma is based mainly on the thickness of the tumor and whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
The staging system is based on the following:
The following stages are used for melanoma:
Stage 0 (Melanoma in Situ)
Stage 0 melanoma in situ. Abnormal melanocytes are in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin).
In stage 0, abnormal melanocytes are found in the epidermis. These abnormal melanocytes may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called melanoma in situ.
Millimeters (mm). A sharp pencil point is about 1 mm, a new crayon point is about 2 mm, and a new pencil eraser is about 5 mm.
Stage I melanoma. In stage IA, the tumor is not more than 1 millimeter thick, with no ulceration (break in the skin). In stage IB, the tumor is either not more than 1 millimeter thick, with ulceration, OR more than 1 but not more than 2 millimeters thick, with no ulceration. Skin thickness is different on different parts of the body.
In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB.
Stage II melanoma. In stage IIA, the tumor is either more than 1 but not more than 2 millimeters thick, with ulceration (break in the skin), OR it is more than 2 but not more than 4 millimeters thick, with no ulceration. In stage IIB, the tumor is either more than 2 but not more than 4 millimeters thick, with ulceration, OR it is more than 4 millimeters thick, with no ulceration. In stage IIC, the tumor is more than 4 millimeters thick, with ulceration. Skin thickness is different on different parts of the body.
Stage II is divided into stages IIA, IIB, and IIC.
Stage III melanoma. The tumor may be any thickness, with or without ulceration (a break in the skin), and (a) cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes; (b) lymph nodes with cancer may be joined together (matted); (c) cancer may be in a lymph vessel between the primary tumor and nearby lymph nodes; and/or (d) very small tumors may be found on or under the skin, not more than 2 centimeters away from the primary tumor.
In stage III, the tumor may be any thickness, with or without ulceration. One or more of the following is true:
Stage IV melanoma. The tumor has spread to other parts of the body.
In stage IV, the cancer has spread to other places in the body, such as the lung, liver, brain, bone, soft tissue, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Cancer may have spread to places in the skin far away from where it first started.
Recurrent melanoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the area where it first started or in other parts of the body, such as the lungs or liver.
There are different types of treatment for patients with melanoma.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with melanoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Five types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery to remove the tumor is the primary treatment of all stages of melanoma. The doctor may remove the tumor using the following operations:
Skin grafting (taking skin from another part of the body to replace the skin that is removed) may be done to cover the wound caused by surgery.
Even if the doctor removes all the melanoma that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be offered chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Chemotherapy given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
One type of regional chemotherapy is hyperthermic isolated limb perfusion. With this method, anticancer drugs go directly to the arm or leg the cancer is in. The flow of blood to and from the limb is temporarily stopped with a tourniquet. A warm solution with the anticancer drugs is put directly into the blood of the limb. This gives a high dose of drugs to the area where the cancer is.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Melanoma for more information.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.
Interferon and interleukin-2 (IL-2) are types of biologic therapy used to treat melanoma. Interferon affects the division of cancer cells and can slow tumor growth. IL-2 boosts the growth and activity of many immune cells, especially lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Lymphocytes can attack and kill cancer cells.
Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) therapy is a type of biologic therapy used with other treatments for melanoma. TNF is a protein made by white blood cells in response to an antigen or infection. Tumor necrosis factor can be made in the laboratory and used as a treatment to kill cancer cells.
See Drugs Approved for Melanoma for more information.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. The following types of targeted therapy are being used in the treatment of melanoma:
See Drugs Approved for Melanoma for more information.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.
Stage 0 (Melanoma in Situ)
Treatment of stage 0 is usually surgery to remove the area of abnormal cells and a small amount of normal tissue around it.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage 0 melanoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Stage I Melanoma
Treatment of stage I melanoma may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I melanoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Stage II Melanoma
Treatment of stage II melanoma may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II melanoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Stage III Melanoma
Treatment of stage III melanoma that can be removed by surgery may include the following:
Treatment of stage III melanoma that cannot be removed by surgery may include the following:
Treatments that are being studied in clinical trials for stage III melanoma include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III melanoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Stage IV and Recurrent Melanoma
Treatment of stage IV and recurrent melanoma may include the following:
Treatments that are being studied in clinical trials for stage IV and recurrent melanoma include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV melanoma and recurrent melanoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about melanoma, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.
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A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2012-05-18
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