Melanoma Facts and Figures

A new drug to extend the lives of patients with melanoma was approved today by the FDA. The medication, Yervoy, was developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and is the first of its kind to treat metastatic melanoma. Here are some important facts to know about melanoma.

Statistics about melanoma
“Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and is very aggressive.

Every year almost 70,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with melanoma, plus an additional 48,000 who develop an early form of melanoma, involving only the superficial skin layer. Melanoma is by far, much more common in whites than in African Americans, and is slightly more common in men compared with women, according to the American Cancer Society. Melanoma has a higher incidence in those over the age of 80, although in young adults under the age of 30, it is one of the most common forms of cancer. There are roughly eight to nine thousand deaths in the US each year from melanoma.

What is melanoma?
Melanoma is the most serious of the skin cancers, developing in the melanocytes, or skin cells which produce melanin, the pigment creating your skin color. The other skin cancers, basal cell and squamous cell, occur more often, with the risk of developing melanoma in an average lifetime being approximately one percent, according to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Although rare, melanoma can also develop in your eyes and internal organs such as the intestinal tract.

What are the causes and risk factors?
Doctors are not completely sure what causes melanoma, but generally there is consensus in believing that both genetic and environmental factors play a role. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun as well as from tanning lamps and beds is believed to be the primary cause of melanoma.

Other risk factors, according to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which are associated with developing melanoma, include a strong family history of melanoma, a personal history of other types of skin cancer, and the existence of atypical moles known as dysplastic nevi.

Additionally, if you have a fair complexion or a weakened immune system, you have a higher risk for developing melanoma. Adults have a higher risk over children of acquiring the disease.

What is the treatment?
As with many cancers, early detection has a higher chance for successful treatment. Surgery to remove the melanoma and surrounding tissue is usually the treatment for early-stage melanomas, and this may be the only necessary treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. If the disease is more advanced, and has spread past the skin, the treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy, using drugs such as interferon or interleukin-2. Experimental modalities are in ongoing clinical trials at larger health care institutions.

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