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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer cells are found in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin or pigment known as melanin. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it may occasionally be found in children and adolescents. Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer.

Our approach

At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, you gain the advantage of an integrated, multidisciplinary team specialized in treating melanoma cancer, as well as access to leading-edge therapies and world-class facilities to provide every level of support and care. This includes the latest technologies for treating melanoma cancer. Highlights of melanoma treatments and services include:

  • Collaboration with local and regional dermatology practices for seamless care
  • Sophisticated surgical and reconstructive techniques
  • Cutting-edge therapies to deliver immunotherapy and chemotherapy 
  • Precision radiation techniques, such as stereotactic radiation therapy and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), that protect healthy tissue while targeting diseased areas

If you have been diagnosed with melanoma cancer, your oncologist will explain all your options and create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and goals. Throughout your treatment, you will work closely with a dedicated team of specialists in medical oncology, surgical oncology, dermatology and radiation oncology with a broad pool of knowledge. Because every melanoma cancer diagnosis is unique, the physicians providing your treatment will meet regularly to share ideas and will review every step of your care.

Research at Northwell

As part of your melanoma cancer treatment plan, you also may have opportunities to participate in clinical trials. These trials study new chemotherapy drugs, radiation technologies and surgical approaches. While not every patient is a candidate for clinical trials, your care team will work with you to determine eligibility. Learn more about clinical trials at Northwell Health.

Symptoms

Normally, the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size or feel of an existing mole or a spot on the skin. The National Cancer Institute suggests using "ABCDE" to remember the five melanoma symptoms:

  • Asymmetry—The shape of one half is different from the other half.
  • Border is irregular—Edges of the mole are often ragged, notched or blurred in outline. Sometimes the pigment spreads into the surrounding skin.
  • Color is uneven—Shades of black, brown, tan, white, gray, red, pink or blue may be present.
  • Diameter change—Usually the size increases. Most melanomas are larger than the size of a pea.
  • Evolving—The mole has changed over the past few weeks or months

Be aware that these symptoms could be due to conditions other than melanoma, so it’s best to see a doctor right away.

Causes

Too much UV radiation from sun exposure causes normal skin cells to become abnormal. These abnormal cells quickly grow out of control and attack the tissues around them. The best way to prevent melanoma is to protect your skin whenever you are out in the sun. For example, stay out of the sun during midday hours, wear sun-protective clothes, use sunscreen with an SPF of least 30 every day and avoid sunbathing and tanning salons.

Related conditions

Many other skin conditions have features like those of melanoma, including warts, seborrheic keratosis and basal cell cancer.

Risk factors

You're at higher risk for melanoma if you have fair skin, a family history of melanoma or many abnormal moles.

Living with melanoma

  • Learn the most important warning signs for melanoma—a change in the size, shape, or color of a mole or other skin growth, such as a birthmark.
  • Check all the skin on your body once a month for skin growths or other changes, such as changes in color and feel of the skin.
    • Stand in front of a full-length mirror. Look carefully at the front and back of your body. Then look at your right and left sides with your arms raised.
    • Bend your elbows and look carefully at your forearms, the back of your upper arms, and your palms.
    • Look at your feet, the bottoms of your feet, and the spaces between your toes.
    • Use a hand mirror to look at the back of your legs, the back of your neck, and your back, rear end (buttocks), and genital area. Part the hair on your head to look at your scalp.
  • If you see a change in a skin growth, contact your doctor. Look for:
    • A mole that bleeds.
    • A fast-growing mole.
    • A scaly or crusted growth on the skin.
    • A sore that will not heal.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • If you have pain, follow your doctor’s instructions to relieve it. Pain from cancer and surgery can almost always be controlled. Use pain medicine when you first notice pain, before it becomes severe.
  • Eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. Drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein. Try to eat your main meal early.
  • Get some physical activity every day, but do not get too tired. Keep doing the hobbies you enjoy as your energy allows.
  • Take steps to control your stress and workload. Learn relaxation techniques.
    • Share your feelings. Stress and tension affect our emotions. By expressing your feelings to others, you may be able to understand and cope with them.
    • Consider joining a support group. Talking about a problem with your spouse, a good friend, or other people with similar problems is a good way to reduce tension and stress.
    • Express yourself through art. Try writing, crafts, dance, or art to relieve stress. Some dance, writing, or art groups may be available just for people who have cancer.
    • Be kind to your body and mind. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and taking time to do things you enjoy can contribute to an overall feeling of balance in your life and help reduce stress.
    • Get help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor or counselor.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea:
    • Drink plenty of fluids (enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water) to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other caffeine-free clear liquids. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
    • When you are able to eat, try clear soups, mild foods, and liquids until all symptoms are gone for 12 to 48 hours. Other good choices include dry toast, crackers, cooked cereal, and gelatin dessert, such as Jell-O.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can slow healing. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • If you have not already done so, prepare a list of advance directives. Advance directives are instructions to your doctor and family members about what kind of care you want if you become unable to speak or express yourself.
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