In the United States, 1 in 85 people will develop melanoma at some point in their life. The risk of developing melanoma increases with age, but the disease frequently affects young, otherwise healthy people. Melanoma is the number one cause of cancer death in women aged 25 to 30.
Melanoma may appear on normal skin, or it may begin at a mole or other area that has changed in appearance. Some moles present at birth may develop into melanomas.
If the skin cancer is deeper than 4 mm, or the lymph nodes have cancer, there is a high risk of the cancer spreading to other tissues and organs. Studies have suggested that treatment with interferon improves the overall chance of cure by approximately 10 percent. However, interferon has many side effects and is sometimes difficult to tolerate.
Patients with high-risk melanomas should consider enrolling in clinical trials. These are research studies of new medications or other treatments.
For patients with melanoma that has spread beyond the skin and lymph nodes to other organs, treatment is more difficult. At this point, melanoma is usually not curable.
Treatment is usually directed at shrinking the tumor and improving symptoms. Both chemotherapy and use of interferon or interleukin may be tried. These patients also should consider participating in clinical trials.
The American Cancer Society recommends professional skin examinations every year for people older than 40, and every three years for people aged 20 to 40. Monthly self-examination is also recommended.