Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. In the United States in 2009, 61,646 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, and 9,199 people died from it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leads national efforts to reduce skin cancer through education. When in the sun:
  • Cover up
  • Get a hat
  • Seek shade
  • Use sunscreen
  • Wear sunglasses
A Common, Sometimes Deadly Form of Cancer
Several million individuals are diagnosed and treated for skin cancer each year, making it the most common form of cancer.Whereas the vast majority of these cases are curable basal or squamous cell carcinomas, more than 75,000 people will be diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, a dangerous form of skin cancer often caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, typically from the sun.Incidence of melanoma has grown markedly over the past several decades, having risen 3.8% a year since 1995 among those age 15 to 34, and 8.8% a year among those 65 and older since 2003. Skin cancers kill nearly 12,000 Americans each year, with more than 2/3 of these individuals dying from melanoma. Melanoma accounts for more deaths than any other form of cancer in women ages 25 to 30 and is second only to breast cancer in women ages 30 to 35.

In New Jersey
With good summer weather and many beaches, pools, and other outdoor venues, New Jersey has a higher incidence of skin cancer (including melanoma) and skin cancer deaths than most states.

Failure to Take Proper Precautions
Individuals who spend a lot of time in the sun often fail to take basic precautions to reduce the risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer, such as avoiding the sun at peak UV hours, wearing protective clothing in sunlight, and using sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. In 2009, fewer than 10% of high school students reported using sunscreen routinely when out in the sun for prolonged periods of time. That same year, only about 1/3 of adults reported always or often using sunscreen or seeking shade when outside for an hour or more on a warm, sunny day, and only 13 percent reported wearing a hat. In addition, teenagers and adults often fail to take the steps needed to identify skin cancer as early as possible, such as conducting periodic self-skin examinations and getting screened regularly by a health professional. Late detection due to lack of screening is a particularly large problem among men (especially older Caucasian males), who are twice as likely as women to die from melanoma due to late detection. For their part, primary care physicians and other health professionals often fail to advise patients about the dangers of UV exposure and how to take appropriate precautions to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Screening for Early Detection

People with fair complexions and freckles are at increased risk for basal and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as for melanoma. Those with moles are at increased risk for melanoma. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers often look like a pale, waxlike, pearly nodule, or a red, scaly, sharply outlined patch. Melanomas often start as small, mole-like growths that increase in size and change color, which usually starts as black or dark brown. Signs of melanoma are:
  • Asymmetrical spots
  • Borders that are uneven or irregular
  • Color that is uneven and unusual
  • Diameter larger than a 1/4-inch
These are often called the ABCDs of melanoma.

Regular examination of the skin by both you and your doctor increases the chance of finding melanoma early. Most melanomas that appear in the skin can be seen by the naked eye.

Usually, there is a long period of time when the tumor grows beneath the top layer of skin but does not grow into the deeper skin layers. This period of slow growth allows time for skin cancer to be found early. Skin cancer may be cured if the tumor is found before it spreads deeper. Monthly self-examination of the skin may help find changes that should be reported to a doctor. Regular skin checks by a doctor are important for people who have already had skin cancer.

For more information on screening, visit the National Cancer Institute.

Treatment Options

  • A team of specialists often treats people with melanoma. This team may include a:
    • Dermatologist
    • Medical oncologist
    • Plastic surgeon
    • Surgeon
  • After diagnosis and staging, the doctor develops a treatment plan to fit each patient's needs. Treatment for melanoma depends on the extent of the disease, the patient's age and general health, as well as other factors.
  • In some cases, doctors may also use chemotherapy, biological therapy, or radiation therapy.
  • The standard treatment for melanoma is surgery. Surgery to remove (excise) a melanoma is the standard treatment for this disease. It is necessary to remove not only the tumor but also some normal tissue around it in order to minimize the chance that any cancer will be left in the area.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is generally a systemic therapy, meaning that it can affect cancer cells throughout the body. In chemotherapy, one or more anticancer drugs are given by mouth or by injection into a blood vessel (intravenous). Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy) is a form of treatment that uses the body's immune system, either directly or indirectly, to fight cancer or to lessen side effects caused by some cancer treatments. Biological therapy is also a systemic therapy and involves the use of substances called biological response modifiers (BRMs). The body normally produces these substances in small amounts in response to infection and disease. Using modern laboratory techniques, scientists can produce BRMs in large amounts for use in cancer treatment. In some cases, biological therapy given after surgery can help prevent melanoma from recurring.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) is used to relieve some of the symptoms caused by melanoma. Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is a local therapy; it affects cells only in the treated area. Radiation therapy is most commonly used to help control melanoma that has spread to the brain, bones, and other parts of the body. The doctors may decide to use 1 treatment method or a combination of methods.

For more information on treatment options, visit the National Cancer Institute website.

View information on finding a doctor or treatment facility.

Children Coping with Parents with Melanoma

Visit Cancer Source Kids to:
  • Find answers to questions that children might have dealing with cancer.
  • Find books to help children understand more about certain cancers.
  • Learn more about all different types of cancers.
  • Read stories from other children.
  • View camps and foundations.