Skin Cancer Symptoms, Conditions and Risk Factors

Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin from a pigment known as melanin. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it may occasionally be found in children and adolescents. While melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned men and women, it can affect anyone, regardless of skin color. Melanoma is also called cutaneous melanoma or malignant melanoma. 

Melanoma, when discovered early, can be cured with surgery alone. Over the past few years more effective therapies have been approved for metastatic melanoma (melanoma that has spread throughout the body). These drug therapies include ipilimumab, pembrolizumab, and others (including debrafenib, vemurafenib,  trametinib, and imatinib) that have been developed to inhibit uncontrolled tumor growth secondary to many different mutations.

According to the American Cancer Society, rates of melanoma occurrence have increased over the last 30 years. It is most prevalent among women in the 20 to 30 age bracket. After age 40, melanoma rates are almost twice as high in men as in women. In men, melanoma most often appears on the chest or back. In women, the arms and legs are more common sites. It can also develop on the face, neck, or other areas.

Symptoms of Melanoma

The following are the most common symptoms of melanoma. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in the size, shape, or color of a mole
  • Oozing or bleeding from a mole
  • A mole that looks different from your other moles or feels itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender to the touch

Most malignant melanoma cells still produce melanin, so melanoma tumors are often shaded brown or black. Melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole. Melanoma can spread quickly to other parts of the body through the lymph system, or through the blood. Like most cancers, melanoma is best treated when it is diagnosed early.

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

People with the following characteristics may be at an increased risk for melanoma:

  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Fair complexion
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Personal history of melanoma
  • Many ordinary moles (more than 50)
  • Many freckles
  • An immunosuppressive disorder
  • Dysplastic nevi (abnormal moles)
  • Sun exposure
  • Early childhood sunburns
  • Inability to tan
  • Tanning lamp use

Dark brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. African Americans can develop this cancer, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails, or in the mouth.