Melanoma

Information about melanoma, a type of cancer that affects the body’s pigment cells.

Melanoma occurs when melanocytes (pigment cells) become malignant. Most pigment cells are in the skin; when melanoma starts in the skin, the disease is called cutaneous melanoma. Melanoma may also occur in the eye and is called ocular melanoma or intraocular melanoma. Rarely, melanoma may arise in the meninges, the digestive tract, lymph nodes, or other areas where melanocytes are found.

Melanoma can occur on any skin surface. In men, it is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, melanoma often develops on the lower legs. Melanoma is rare in people with dark skin. When it does develop in dark-skinned people, it tends to occur under the fingernails or toenails, or on the palms or soles. The chance of developing melanoma increases with age, but this disease affects people of all age groups. Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults.

When melanoma spreads, cancer cells are also found in the lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). If the cancer has reached the lymph nodes, it may mean that cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body such as the liver, lungs, or brain. In such cases, the cancer cells in the new tumor are still melanoma cells, and the disease is called metastatic melanoma rather than liver, lung, or brain cancer.

Preparing for Treatment
Many people with cancer want to learn all they can about the disease and their treatment choices so they can take an active part in decisions about their medical care. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, shock and stress are natural reactions. These feelings may make it difficult to think of everything to ask the doctor. Often, it helps to make a list of questions. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some people also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor—to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

People do not need to ask all of their questions or remember all of the answers at one time. Questions may arise throughout the treatment process. Patients and caregivers may ask doctors, nurses, or other members of the health care team to explain things further or to provide more information.

These are some questions a patient may want to ask the doctor before treatment begins:

  • What is the diagnosis?
  • What is the stage of the disease?
  • What is the grade of the disease?
  • What are the treatment choices? Which do you recommend? Why?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment?
  • What are the chances that the treatment will be successful?
  • What new treatments are being studied in clinical trials? Would a clinical trial be appropriate?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • Will treatment affect my normal activities? If so, for how long?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost?

Follow-up Care

Melanoma patients have a high risk of developing separate new melanomas. Some also are at risk for a recurrence of the original melanoma in nearby skin or in other parts of the body.

To increase the chance that a new melanoma will be detected as early as possible, patients should follow their doctor’s schedule for regular checkups. It is especially important for patients who have dysplastic nevi and a family history of melanoma to have frequent checkups. Patients also should examine their skin monthly and follow their doctor’s advice about how to reduce their chance of developing another melanoma.

The chance of recurrence is greater for patients whose melanoma was thick or had spread to nearby tissue than for patients with very thin melanomas. Follow-up care for those who have a high risk of recurrence may include x-rays; blood tests; and scans of the chest, liver, bones, and brain.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from information in the What You Need to Know About™ Cancer series, published by the National Cancer Institute.



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