Although melanoma is more commonly found in adults, childhood and adolescent melanoma affects approximately 300 children in the U.S. each year. Thankfully, the incidence rate has started to decrease in recent years.
While melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer in adults, skin cancer in children is almost always melanoma. The biggest increase in melanoma incidences has been in girls ages 15-19, possibly because girls are more likely than boys to sunbathe and use tanning beds. Because melanoma often appears differently in children than in adults, doctors and parents sometimes overlook it or misdiagnose it as a different skin problem.
We spoke with Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, clinical director of the Solid Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, to learn what parents should know about melanoma in children:
What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma in children?
While melanomas in adults tend to turn darker, in children they often are whitish, yellowish or red and may be misdiagnosed as warts. If you notice any changes to skin or moles in your child it is important to visit your pediatrician.
The same “ABCDE rule” used to determine whether a doctor should check a mole in adults also applies to children. Just remember that in children, color may be lighter instead of darker.
What are the risk factors for childhood melanoma?
As with adults, children are most at risk for melanoma if they have:
- Fair skin
- A history of many blistering sunburns
- Several large or many small moles
- A family history of unusual moles
- A family history of melanoma
Children at high risk should be seen by a pediatric dermatologist annually. Also, remember that melanoma can occur in places not exposed to the sun, so be sure to have your child’s scalp, feet, hands and buttocks checked.
If you or your dermatologist suspects your child may have melanoma, make sure your child is seen by a pediatric team. Dermatologists and pathologists used to seeing adult melanomas may not notice key signs of melanoma in children. Also, don’t hesitate to seek a biopsy. The earlier it’s caught, the more treatable it is.
How is childhood melanoma treated?
Once correctly diagnosed, treatment options for melanoma in children are similar to treatments for adults and may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or radiation therapy. New research and clinical trials are also investigating the use of precision medicine and immunotherapy to treat childhood and adolescent melanoma. Learn more about melanoma clinical trials at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.
Children and adolescents with melanoma typically fare well with treatment; the overall five-year survival rate is 90 percent.