Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It begins in cells in the skin called melanocytes. To understand melanoma, it is helpful to know about the skin and about melanocytes– what they do, how they grow, and what happens when they become cancerous.
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.
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 help 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.
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Melanocytes and moles
Melanocytes produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.
Sometimes, clusters of melanocytes and surrounding tissue form noncancerous growths called moles. (Doctors also call a mole a nevus; the plural is nevi.) Moles are very common. Most people have between 10 and 40 moles. Moles may be pink, tan, brown, or a color that is very close to the person’s normal skin tone. People who have dark skin tend to have dark moles. Moles can be flat or raised. They are usually round or oval and smaller than a pencil eraser. They may be present at birth or may appear later on — usually before age 40. They tend to fade away in older people. When moles are surgically removed, they normally do not return.
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