What Is Melanoma?

    A microscopic image of melanomaEach year in the United States, more than 53,600 people learn they have melanoma. This number has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

    But what is melanoma?

    Let’s start with a basic explanation of how your skin functions:

    The Skin

    The skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. It helps regulate body temperature, stores water and fat, and produces vitamin D.

    There is a myth that dark skin doesn’t burn, and therefore doesn’t need sunscreen. The reality is that all complexions can burn. Darker skin does provide some protection from the sun’s UV rays – it has more melanin for natural protection — but you can’t count on that alone.

    The skin has two main layers: the outer epidermis and the inner dermis.

    • The epidermis is mostly made up of flat, scalelike cells called squamous cells. Round cells called basal cells lie under the squamous cells in the epidermis. The lower part of the epidermis also contains melanocytes.
    • The dermis contains blood vessels, lymph vessels, hair follicles, and glands. Some of these glands produce sweat, which helps regulate body temperature. Other glands produce sebum, an oily substance that helps keep the skin from drying out. Sweat and sebum reach the skin’s surface through tiny openings called pores.

    What Is Melanoma?

    Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It begins in cells in the skin called melanocytes.

    Melanoma is more than 10 times higher in whites compared to blacks, but over a five-year span, blacks have a 78 percent lower survival rate compared to 92 percent of whites, according to study background material. One reason might be that melanoma in blacks usually is first seen only the disease’s advanced stages, researchers suggest.

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