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What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma is the world’s most dangerous type of skin cancer. Of the estimated 192,310 cases that will be diagnosed in the US in 2019, over a third or 69,480 will be invasive and penetrate to the dermis, the skin layer below the epidermis. Over 7200 people in the US die from melanoma per year.

If caught early, melanoma can almost always be treated. Melanoma’s deadliness, however, is due to its propensity for metastasizing or spreading to other parts of the body. Once melanoma has metastasized, it becomes much harder to treat, and the patient’s chances of survival decline markedly.

Doctors describe melanoma as having stages. The higher the number, the more severe the cancer is. Stage 0 melanomas are those that have not spread beyond the epidermis, while Stage I melanomas have reached the dermis. Stage II melanomas are also confined to the dermis, but they are bigger and have other traits that indicate they are about to spread. Stage III melanomas have spread to nearby tissues and Stage IV cancers have spread to different parts of the body.

Doctors use the different stages to help them decide on a treatment. Melanomas in the early stages can be surgically removed, but patients with more advanced cancers will also need treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy to kill all of the cancer cells scattered throughout their body.