What Is Melanoma? The Basics, Explained
Melanoma, a cancer of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, is one of the most common cancers in the United States. Over the past three decades, the incidence in the U.S. alone has tripled, and it is currently one of the top 10 causes of new cancer cases. Most melanomas originate from the skin, though they can also arise from other parts of the body containing melanocytes, including the eyes, brain, spinal cord or mucous membranes. Some melanomas are first detected when they spread to other parts of the body, without a documented primary tumor.
While the overall five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with melanoma is high, at 92 percent compared to 66 percent for all other cancers, the survival rate decreases dramatically once melanoma spreads to other parts of the body. Very early stage (localized, Stage 0 or I) melanoma is greater than 90 percent curable with surgery, while patients with disseminated Stage IV melanoma have a median life expectancy of less than one year.
The ability to spread widely to other parts of the body is a unique characteristic of melanoma that the other more common skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, do not possess. This characteristic makes melanoma the deadliest of all skin cancers: It accounts for only four percent of skin cancers, but 80 percent of skin cancer-related deaths.
In the United States, an estimated 68,130 Americans were newly diagnosed with melanoma in 2010—one every eight minutes—and approximately 8,700 Americans will die of melanoma. That's one every hour. Despite tremendous advancements in medicine, the melanoma death rate has remained static over the past 30 years, while the incidence is rising. Only three U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved therapies for metastatic melanoma currently exist, and they benefit only a minority of patients. More effective options for prevention, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment are urgently needed.
There are hopeful signs for a better outlook. New treatments under development, including immunotherapies and molecularly targeted therapies, have produced dramatic responses in some patients with advanced disease. Even though some tumor regressions have proved to be transient, these results provide proof of principle for moving forward. Decades of research in melanoma have translated into significant scientific and clinical advances over the past few years and have generated much excitement in the scientific community and among patients and advocates. Investigators are finding ways to improve upon these results to combat this deadly disease.