Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from the pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes. Melanoma most often develops on areas of the skin exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, chest, arms and legs. However, melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, including areas not exposed to the sun.
Melanoma is less common than some other types of skin cancers. However, it is more dangerous because it’s much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early. The earlier melanoma is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of recovery.
What are the risk factors for developing melanoma?
Several factors can increase your risk of developing melanoma skin cancer, including:
- Fair skin. Having less pigment (melanin) in your skin provides less protection from damaging UV radiation. If you have blond or red hair, light-colored eyes, and you freckle or sunburn easily, you’re more likely to develop melanoma than is someone with darker skin.
- A history of sunburns. Having had one or more blistering sunburns as a child or teenager increases your risk of developing melanoma as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood are also a risk factor.
- Excessive sun exposure. Spending significant time in the sun increases your risk, whether you burn or not. Tanning, including exposure to tanning lamps and beds, also puts you at risk. A tan indicates damage from UV rays.
- Living closer to the equator or at a higher elevation. People who live in areas that get high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun are more likely to get skin cancer. Living closer to the equator, where the sun’s rays are more direct, increases your risk of melanoma.
- Fair-skinned people living in sunny climates near the equator are more likely to develop melanoma than are people with dark skin living in less sunny areas.
- Weakened immune system. People with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of developing melanoma. This includes people living with HIV/AIDS and those taking immunosuppressant medications after an organ transplant.
- A family history of melanoma. If one of your parents, siblings or children has been diagnosed with melanoma, you have an increased risk of the disease.
- A personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers. If you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma in the past, you have an increased risk of developing melanoma again.
- Abnormal moles. Having a large number of moles or atypical moles increases your risk of melanoma.
- Age. The risk of melanoma increases with age, but it also frequently occurs in younger people.
- Gender. Men are more likely to develop melanoma than are women.
Who is more prone to developing melanoma?
Based on the risk factors, below are the groups that are most prone to developing melanoma skin cancer:
Fair-skinned people with lighter hair, eye color and complexion have less melanin pigment in their skin to protect against UV radiation damage that can lead to melanoma. The less pigment you have, the more easily your skin burns rather than tans when exposed to the sun.
People who sunburn easily
If your skin tends to burn easily after sun exposure rather than tanning, it indicates you have less protective melanin. Severe sunburns, especially blistering burns, and excessive sun exposure can significantly raise your melanoma risk.
Those with many moles or atypical moles
Having a large number of moles (more than 50) indicates you have more melanocytes, which are the cells that melanoma starts in. Moles that have irregular borders, uneven color with shades of pink or red, or that are larger than the size of a pencil eraser are called atypical moles. These are more likely to turn into melanoma than common moles.
People with weakened immune systems
People with weakened immune systems are unable to fight cancers as effectively as those with healthy immune systems. This puts them at higher risk of developing melanoma and having a poorer prognosis if melanoma occurs.
Those with a family history of melanoma
Around 10% of people with melanoma have a first-degree relative with the disease. Having a parent, sibling or child diagnosed with melanoma increases your risk. Genetics likely play a role in some families.
People with a personal history of melanoma
If you’ve already been diagnosed with melanoma, you have a higher lifetime risk of about 5% of developing a second melanoma. This is likely due to similar skin type, sun exposure habits and genetics.
Melanoma is more common in older adults, with the average age at diagnosis being 65. But melanoma isn’t limited to seniors, as it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women. Overall, melanoma rates are higher among men across all age groups.
What are some melanoma statistics?
Below are some key statistics on melanoma skin cancer in the United States from the American Cancer Society:
- Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers but causes the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.
- In 2022, about 99,780 new melanomas will be diagnosed.
- For men, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.6% (1 in 38).
- For women, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 1.6% (1 in 60).
- The average age at the time of melanoma diagnosis is 65.
- Melanoma is more frequently diagnosed in men across all age groups.
- But before age 40, melanoma is more common in women.
- About 7,180 people are expected to die of melanoma in 2022.
- For early melanoma that has not spread beyond the skin, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99%.
- For melanoma that has spread to lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is about 66%.
- If melanoma has spread to distant parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is about 29%.
Melanoma incidence rates by race
Melanoma rates vary significantly by race and ethnicity. Below are the estimated new melanoma cases in 2022 per 100,000 people by race, according to the American Cancer Society:
- Whites: 28 cases
- Hispanics: 4 cases
- Blacks: 1 case
- Asian/Pacific Islanders: 1 case
- American Indians/Alaska Natives: 3 cases
The rates are highest in whites due to risk factors like fair skin, light hair and eye color, family history, and genetic mutations that are more common in this population.
Melanoma trends over time
Over the past decade, melanoma incidence rates have been increasing by about 1% to 3% per year in whites. Rates have been stable in Blacks and Hispanics. The increases in whites are believed due to increased outdoor sun exposure and use of indoor tanning devices.
Here’s a table showing the 5-year melanoma incidence rate trends by race and ethnicity:
|21.2 per 100,000
|24.2 per 100,000
|1.0 per 100,000
|1.0 per 100,000
|4.3 per 100,000
|4.7 per 100,000
Meanwhile, melanoma death rates have been declining over the past decade by about 1.5% to 2.5% per year in whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Advances in early detection and treatment have likely contributed to the decreases.
What are strategies for melanoma prevention?
While some risk factors for melanoma like skin type, family history, and age can’t be changed, there are steps you can take to lower your melanoma risk by protecting your skin from UV damage:
- Use sunscreen – Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher whenever your skin will be exposed to the sun. Reapply at least every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.
- Avoid intentional sun tanning – Don’t use tanning beds or sunbathe. A tan may increase your risk, even if you don’t burn.
- Seek shade – Stay in the shade when possible, especially during midday hours when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- Cover up – Wear protective clothing like hats, long sleeves, and sunglasses when out in the sun.
- Avoid sun lamps and tanning beds – UV light from tanning devices increases skin cancer risk.
- Examine your skin – Perform regular self-skin exams to look for any new or changing moles. See a dermatologist annually.
Early detection of melanoma is key, as the prognosis is excellent when treated early. If you notice any new moles or changes in the size, shape or color of existing spots, see your doctor promptly.
While anyone can develop melanoma, the disease does not affect all populations equally. Fair-skinned people, those who burn easily, people with many or irregular moles, and older white men have the highest melanoma rates. Ultraviolet light exposure and family history also play major roles in melanoma risk.
Steps like avoiding excess sun exposure, not tanning, using sunscreen, and performing regular skin self-exams can help reduce your chances of melanoma. Promptly reporting any suspicious skin changes to your doctor offers the best odds of early-stage diagnosis and treatment, which provides the greatest chance of survival.