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Melanoma Stages and Risk Factors

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It effects melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells found deep in the skin.

Melanoma is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States, with more than 76,000 cases diagnosed each year. This cancer can be aggressive, and it often spreads to other tissues of the body.

Because it starts in pigment-producing cells, melanomas are typically black or brown, first appearing as moles. However, they may also be pink or tan and possibly white.

As the abnormal cells replicate, they can:

  • Spread across the surface of the skin — as in superficial spreading melanoma, the most common form of melanoma.
  • Grow deep into the dermis — like in nodular melanoma.

All types of this skin cancer can continue to spread into the lymph system and other tissues of the body.

Stages of Melanoma

Knowing the stage of your melanoma can help you understand the level of severity and your recommended course of treatment.

Doctors stage this type of skin cancer with these factors in mind:

  • Tumor depth.
  • Mitotic rate — how fast the cells are replicating.
  • Ulceration — whether or not the epidermis is broken on top of the tumor.

Melanoma stages include:

  • Stage 0 — in this early stage, the cancer may be nearly indistinguishable from a normal mole. The melanoma is in the mole itself and is only in the most superficial layer of skin. There is no sign of ulceration.
  • Stage I — the melanoma begins to invade the deeper layers of the skin. But, this stage is slow-growing (lower mitotic rate) and unulcerated, meaning the upper layer of skin is unbroken.
  • Stage II — in this stage, the melanoma grows faster (higher mitotic rate). It has signs of ulceration that may be visible only through a microscope.
  • Stage III — the melanoma or tumor has spread to the lymphatic system. If the tumor is thicker than 1 mm, your team will likely perform a biopsy. They will take a tissue sample of the nearest lymph node (called the sentinel lymph node) to test for cancerous cells.
  • Stage IV — these melanomas have fully spread to the lymph system and other organ systems like the lungs, liver, and brain.

Melanoma Risk Factors

You may be at a higher risk for getting melanoma if you have any of the following:

  • An abundance of moles or atypical moles.
  • Fair skin with light eyes.
  • Family history of skin cancer.
  • History of melanoma.
  • History of sunburns.
  • Tanning bed usage.
  • Unprotected exposure to the sun.
  • Suppressed immune system (from disease or from organ transplant treatments).

The ABCDE's of melanoma list the signs and characteristics of moles likely to be at risk of melanoma.

Early detection and treatment is key to preventing the progression of this disease.

In fact, if caught before it spreads to the lymph nodes or other organs, melanoma has a 98 percent five-year survival rate.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides free skin cancer screenings on the third Friday of every month at Hillman Cancer Center. To make an appointment for a free screening, call 412-692-4724.

Contact the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

To learn more about melanoma risks and care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call us at 412-647-2811.