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Melanoma (cont.)

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What are the causes and risk factors for melanoma?

Guideline # 5: Individual sunburns do raise your risk of melanoma. However, slow daily sun exposure, even without burning, may also substantially raise your risk of skin cancer.

Factors that raise your risk for melanoma include:

  • Caucasian (white) ancestry
  • Fair skin, light hair, and light-colored eyes
  • A history of intense, intermittent sun exposure, especially in childhood
  • Many (more than 100) moles
  • Large, irregular, or "funny looking" moles
  • Close blood relatives -- parents, siblings, and children -- with melanoma

The presence of close (first-degree) family with melanoma is a high risk factor, although looking at all of melanoma, only 10% of cases run in families.

How do I estimate my level of risk for melanoma?

The best way to know your risk level is to have a dermatologist perform a full body examination. That way you will find out whether the spots you have are moles and, if so, whether they are "funny looking" in the medical sense.

The medical term for such moles is "atypical." This is a somewhat confusing term, because among other things the criteria for defining it are not clear, and it's not certain that an atypical mole is necessarily precancerous. If you have such moles, your doctor may do a biopsy in order to counsel you about the need for surveillance or further testing.

Sometimes, you learn at a routine skin evaluation that you do not necessarily need annual routine checkups. In other situations, your doctor may recommend regular checks at six-month or yearly intervals.

What are the types of melanoma?

The main types of melanoma are:

  1. Superficial spreading melanoma: This type accounts for about 70% of all cases of melanoma. The most common locations are the legs of women and the backs of men, and they occur most commonly between the ages of 30 and 50. (Note: Melanomas can occur in other locations and at other ages as well.) These melanomas are often barely raised and have a variety of colors. Such melanomas evolve over one to five years and can be readily caught at an early stage if they are detected and removed.

  2. Nodular melanoma: About 20% of melanomas begin as deeper, blue-black to purplish lumps. They may evolve faster and may also be more likely to spread.
  3. Lentigo maligna: Unlike other forms of melanoma, lentigo maligna tends to occur on places like the face, which are exposed to the sun constantly rather than intermittently. Lentigo maligna looks like a large, irregularly shaped or colored freckle and develops slowly. It may take many years to evolve into a more dangerous melanoma.

There are also other rarer forms of melanoma that may occur, for example, under the nails, on the palms and soles, in the eye, or sometimes even inside the body.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/24/2014

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Melanoma (Skin Cancer) - Symptoms Question: What did your melanoma look like when you first noticed it? What was the size of the growth?
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Melanoma (Skin Cancer) - Risk Factors and Causes Question: What risk factors do you have for melanoma? What are your concerns?
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