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Malignant Melanoma

Malignant Melanoma and Melanocytes

Malignant melanoma begins when melanocytes (pigment cells) gradually become more abnormal and divide without control or order. These cells can invade and destroy the normal cells around them. The abnormal cells form a growth of malignant tissue (a cancerous tumor) on the surface of the skin. Malignant melanoma can begin either in an existing mole or as a new growth on the skin.
In men, malignant melanoma is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, malignant melanoma often develops on the arms and legs. Malignant melanoma usually occurs in adults, but is sometimes found in children and adolescents.

What Causes It?

At this time, no one can explain why one person will get malignant melanoma and another person will not. Research has shown that sun exposure, especially excessive exposure that leads to bad, blistering sunburns, is an important and avoidable risk factor for the condition. Scientists are continuing their studies to find possible causes of malignant melanoma.

Risk Factors for Malignant Melanoma

Learning about malignant melanoma prevention and early detection is especially important for people who have an increased risk for developing it. People who are at an increased risk include those who have dysplastic nevi or a large number of ordinary moles.
Risk factors for malignant melanoma include:
  • Dysplastic nevi
  • History of malignant melanoma
  • Family history of malignant melanoma
  • Weakened immune system
  • Several ordinary moles (more than 50)
  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation
  • Severe, blistering sunburns
  • Freckles
  • Fair skin.
It is important to remember that not everyone who has risk factors for malignant melanoma will get it. In fact, most do not. Also, about half the people who develop malignant melanoma do not have any known risk factors for the condition.
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