Health A-Z

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Five key factors help to determine how serious melanoma is:

  • Tumor thickness How deep it goes into the skin.

  • Location Melanoma on the arms or legs may not be as serious as a tumor somewhere else on the body.

  • Age People older than 60 are in more danger.

  • Gender Males are more likely to die of the disease.

  • Spreading of the tumor Twenty percent of people with melanoma have cancer in lymph nodes when their cancer is diagnosed.

The thickness of the tumor is the most important factor in determining whether it can be treated. Tumors on the skin's surface usually can be cured. Deeper cancers are more difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat. If melanoma cells break away and spread to organs such as the lungs, liver or brain, the cancer can be cured in only a small number of patients.

If treatment begins when the tumor is less than 0.75 millimeters deep, the chance of a cure is excellent. More than 95% of people with small melanomas are cancer-free as long as 8 years later. However, for deeper melanomas, the survival rate is poor. Fewer than half of people with tumors thicker than 4 millimeters survive for 5 years. If melanoma cells are found in a lymph node, the 5-year survival rate is between 30% and 50%.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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