One of the most common cancers, skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells on skin exposed to the sun. But this very common cancer can occur on areas of your body which are not exposed to sunlight so it’s important to perform skin self-exams and get skin cancer screenings by your MedStar Health dermatologist every year.

The three major types of skin cancer are:

  • melanoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • basal cell carcinoma

Melanoma is the deadliest and most dangerous type of skin cancer. The incidence of melanoma is growing fastest among adults ages 25 to 29, much of it due to the use of indoor tanning beds. Melanoma develops in the cells that give skin its color, in either a new or existing mole. While melanoma is aggressive and can potentially threaten your life, most cases of melanoma are caught early and are curable.

Treatment for early-stage melanoma is usually possible with a simple surgery, and often with the initial biopsy used to diagnose the disease. Often, more advanced cancers require other approaches and more than one type of treatment.

At Washington Cancer Institute, our skin cancer experts provide the full range of care to restore your skin’s appearance and include dermatologic oncologists and plastic surgeons. Melanoma can be located in a cosmetically sensitive area, or where the doctor had to remove a large amount of tissue. If that’s the case, your dermatologic oncologist will partner with one of our expert plastic surgeons when the surgery is still in the planning stage to aid in or minimize potential reconstruction.

After the surgery, the plastic surgeon repairs any visible scars. For larger tumors, the surgical site is reconstructed with a skin graft, taken from a discreet place elsewhere on your body. The team works hard to ensure you are happy with the final results. 

Our skin cancer experts design personalized treatment options for each patient based on several factors including:

  • the melanoma’s thickness, stage, rate of growth and genetic changes (if any)
  • whether it has spread
  • possible side effects
  • your overall health
  • your preferences

Our melanoma care features innovative and comprehensive therapy. We provide treatment for complex surgeries involving advanced melanoma and direct, high-dose chemotherapy (infusion or perfusion) to save limbs where multiple tumors may have returned. We also participate in clinical research trials involving new treatments.

Unfortunately, melanoma can return to the same place even if cured, and patients are also at higher risk of developing other skin cancers. That’s why we make you partners in case to ensure you get regular skin exams to protect your health.

Melanoma Symptoms

Early detection is the best tool for fighting melanoma — treatment is much more effective when the disease is caught early. Make sure to talk to your MedStar Health dermatologist if you notice changes to your skin or moles.

These include:


  • growth, bleeding or itching
  • asymmetrical appearance (left and right sides do not look identical)
  • irregular, blurry or jagged edges
  • color changes, including mole spreading, darkening or the appearance of multiple colors or loss of mole color
  • large mole size (diameter larger than 6 mm — the size of a pencil eraser)
  • raised mole above the skin with an uneven surface

Lesions (abnormal skin growth or appearance)

  • appear smooth or waxy
  • grow in a cluster that is pink or red with a shiny or scaly appearance
  • heal and reopen repeatedly
  • form as a brown or black streak underneath a fingernail or toenail 

Melanoma can be located anywhere on the body including under the fingernails and toenails as well as on the trunk, arms and legs, head and neck. It’s often identified by assessing the lesion or mole’s size, color, symmetry, border and changes. There are several tools for diagnosis, starting with a regular self-exam, and a yearly visit to your MedStar Health dermatologist for a skin cancer screening. 

Spot changes to your skin and moles by doing a monthly skin self-exam, using a full-length mirror if possible.

  • bend your elbows and look at your forearms and upper arms, and your hands
  • sit down to look at the front and back of your legs and feet
  • look between your toes and on the bottom of your feet
  • check the back of your neck and your scalp

To see hard to reach areas, use a handheld mirror for a better look.

Melanoma Risks

There are several risk factors for melanoma:

  • a previous cancer diagnosis, especially melanoma or another skin cancer such as basal or squamous cell
  • family history of cancer, especially melanoma (5 to 10 percent of cases are inherited)
  • excess exposure to sun and UV radiation
  • multiple, blistering sunburns (about 20 percent of patients report a history of sunburns)
  • cases of actinic keratosis, a rash of scaly or crusty bumps caused by the sun
  • use of indoor tanning beds and sun lamps
  • fair complexion (though melanoma does occur in people with various skin tones and hair and eye colors)
  • moles (including dysplastic nevi, or atypical moles), spots or lesions — areas with unusual growth or appearance
  • immune system deficiency
  • taking immunosuppressive medications, such as for an organ transplant

You can potentially lower your risk by:

  • staying out of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the rays are the strongest
  • applying sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and lip screen every day (reapply every two hours or after swimming)
  • covering as much skin as possible, such as with a loose, long-sleeved shirt and long pants
  • wearing a canvas hat with a wide brim when outside
  • treatment for early-stage melanoma is usually possible with a simple surgery, and often during the initial biopsy used to diagnose the disease

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