What’s the Difference Between Melanoma and Skin Cancer?


Many people consider skin cancer to be synonymous with melanoma. As May marks Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, it is important to understand that melanoma is only one type of skin cancer; other forms of the disease are less aggressive and more common.

Yawkey Center for Cancer Care healing garden.Melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer, with approximately 76,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. It is also the most aggressive, and is most likely to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis. Possible signs of melanoma include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area of the skin.

Squamous cell carcinoma and  basal cell carcinoma are two other forms of skin cancer. They form in the upper and middle layers of the epidermis, respectively. Both are classified as “nonmelanoma” and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Possible signs of nonmelanoma include unusual changes in the skin, such as areas that are small, raised, smooth or red, or skin that is rough, red and scaly.

All skin cancers can occur anywhere in the body, but melanoma is most common in skin that is often exposed to sunlight, such as the face, neck, hands, and arms. It is important to visit your dermatologist with any questions or concerns about moles or unusual areas of the skin, in order to detect and diagnose any possible skin cancer as early as possible.

For more information on melanoma, read “Melanoma: Five Things You Need to Know” or visit the website for Dana-Farber’s Melanoma Program.

One Comment:

  1. I still remember when I was made very aware of the real risk that skin cancer poses after doctor’s found basal cell carcinoma on my uncle’s nose. He is an avid fisherman and has spent many years on the water without taking steps to protect his skin from the rays of the sun. On the bright side of things, it wasn’t melanoma, and they had identified it early on. My uncle now makes sure to wear hats and other protective clothing in addition to sunscreen while fishing. He may have had more of an excuse for the time that he spent with out taking necessary precautions, but people growing up now really can’t claim ignorance when it comes to the harmful effects of UVA rays. It may be a pain to put on that sunscreen before hitting the beach, but it’s better than taking a gamble on melanoma and other forms of skin cancer.

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