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Melanoma is a skin cancer. It begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that give skin its pigment, or color. Although melanoma is rare in children, it is the most common pediatric skin cancer.
Melanoma is occasionally found in newborns. Melanoma becomes more common as children get older, and it accounts for about 8% of cancers in teens.
Pediatric melanoma is becoming more common, especially in teenage girls. Research shows that sun exposure and tanning beds increase risk.
Childhood melanoma risk factors
Although the exact cause of pediatric melanoma is not known, certain things make it more likely that a child will develop this type of cancer. These risk factors include:
- Immunosuppression, immunodeficiency
- History of retinoblastoma
- Certain inherited disorders including xeroderma pigmentosum and Werner syndrome
- Giant melanocytic nevi
- Prolonged exposure to sunlight. This is less of a factor in children than adults.
- Red or blond hair, blue eyes, freckles
- Tendency to sunburn and not tan
- Large number of moles
- Family history of melanoma
Previous studies have shown that children who are treated for melanoma are at an increased risk of it returning later in life.
Not everyone with risk factors gets melanoma. However, if your child has risk factors, you should discuss them with the doctor.
Some cases of melanoma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Learn more about the risk to you and your family on our genetic testing page.
Behavioral and lifestyle changes can help prevent melanoma. Visit our prevention and screening section to learn how to manage your risk.
Some people have an elevated risk of developing melanoma. Review the skin cancer screening guidelines to see if you need to be tested.
Melanoma symptoms vary from child to child. It’s a good idea to examine carefully any moles or other spots on your child’s skin.
The most common childhood melanoma symptoms are:
- A bump that itches and bleeds
- A wart-like spot, typically non-pigmented or a pinkish color
- An odd-looking mole, especially a large one
- A mole that looks completely different from a child’s other moles
When examining your child's moles, remember ABCDEF:
- Asymmetry: Is one side of the mole different than the other?
- Border irregularity: Are the edges ragged or irregular?
- Color variation: Is the mole getting darker? Is part of it changing color or does it contain several colors?
- Diameter: Is the mole bigger than ¼ inch?
- Evolution: Is the mole growing in width or height?
- Feeling: Has the sensation around a mole or spot changed?
Pediatric melanoma is rare. If your child has any of the above symptoms, they likely are caused by a less serious problem. However, be sure to tell your doctor if you see any abnormal bump, mole or spot on your child’s skin.
Early and accurate diagnosis of pediatric melanoma is important. However, pediatric melanoma can be difficult to diagnose correctly.
MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital has the most advanced technology to diagnose pediatric melanoma and find out if it has spread. This helps increase the likelihood that your child’s treatment will be successful. Our staff includes specialized pathologists and diagnostic radiologists who are highly skilled in diagnosing pediatric melanoma.
If your child has a suspicious-looking area on the skin that the doctor thinks might be melanoma, the first step is a thorough physical examination. The doctor also will ask questions about your child’s health and your family medical history.
One or more of the following diagnostic tests may be used to find out if your child has melanoma and if it has spread. These tests also may be used to find out if treatment is working.
To find out if a mole or spot on the skin is melanoma, the doctor will do a biopsy to remove a small amount of tissue to be looked at under a microscope. Suspicious areas should not be shaved or “burned” off (destroyed with a hot instrument, an electrical current or a caustic substance) until a biopsy has been done.
Your doctor may use one of these biopsy methods:
- Local excision/excisional biopsy: The entire suspicious area is removed with a scalpel under local anesthetic. Depending on the size and location of the area, this may be done in a doctor's office or as an outpatient procedure at a hospital.
- Punch biopsy: A small tool is used to remove a round cylinder of tissue.
- Shave biopsy: The doctor shaves off a piece of the growth.
Several imaging methods may be used to diagnose pediatric melanoma, which may include:
- CT or CAT (computed axial tomography) scans
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
- PET (positron emission tomography) scans
Getting a second opinion at Children's Cancer Hospital
The experts at Children's Cancer Hospital are highly specialized in diagnosing pediatric melanoma. We welcome the opportunity to provide second opinions for pediatric melanoma.
If you would like to get a second opinion at Children's Cancer Hospital, call 888-352-4094 to make an appointment or request an appointment online.
The experts at MD Anderson's Children's Cancer Hospital take a personalized approach to your child's treatment. Drawing upon a range of the most-advanced treatment options, your child's care team works together closely and with you to determine the best course of action. This helps increase your child's opportunity for successful treatment.
Each child's case is managed by an interdisciplinary team that may include oncologists, surgical oncologists and radiation oncologists. They are supported by a highly trained team of nurses, physician's assistants, therapists and social workers.
Melanoma is not a “one-size-fits-all” type of cancer. The molecular and cellular changes are different for each person. If pediatric melanoma is caught early, it is highly treatable.
Surgery is almost always part of the treatment for pediatric melanoma. Because Children's Cancer Hospital leads one of the most active pediatric melanoma treatment programs in the nation, our surgeons have extraordinary expertise and experience that can help increase your child's chances for successful treatment.
Several innovative treatments for pediatric melanoma are offered at Children's Cancer Hospital. We offer a range of clinical trials, some of them available only here.
If your child has been diagnosed with melanoma or your child’s doctor suspects your child may have melanoma, we can help. Call 888-352-4094 to make an appointment or request an appointment online.
Our childhood melanoma treatments
If your child is diagnosed with pediatric melanoma, the doctor will discuss the best ways to treat it. This depends on several factors, including if the cancer has spread. Your child’s treatment for melanoma will be customized to your child’s particular needs. One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.
The main treatment for pediatric melanoma is surgery to remove the tumor. The type and extent of surgery depends on the size and location of the melanoma and if it has spread.
Early pediatric melanomas usually don’t need further treatment after surgical removal. After surgery, your child will need to have check-ups to be sure the cancer has not returned.
If the melanoma is more advanced, a sentinel node biopsy may be done during surgery. Lymph nodes are olive-sized glands that are part of the lymphatic system that circulates lymph fluid throughout the body. The lymphatic system also can carry cancer cells from the tumor site to other areas of the body. In a sentinel lymph node biopsy, a radioactive blue dye is injected into the area before surgery. The dye shows up in cancerous lymph nodes. The node with the highest amount of blue dye is the “sentinel” node. The surgeon removes all nodes with blue dye.
Chemotherapy may be used after surgery for some advanced pediatric melanomas. Children’s Cancer Hospital offers the most up-to-date and advanced chemotherapy options.
Treatment with these innovative agents may be needed in advanced pediatric melanomas. They are specially designed to treat each child’s specific cancer and its genetic/molecular profile to help the patient’s body fight the disease. Many of the doctors at Children’s Cancer Hospital are dedicated researchers who have pioneered and actively lead national and international clinical trials with novel targeted agents.
Why choose MD Anderson for your childhood melanoma treatment?
Each child is unique; each case of pediatric melanoma is unique. That’s why MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Center takes an approach that focuses intensely on your child and your child’s care. We customize each child’s treatment plan on their specific cancer, drawing from an array of the most-advanced treatments and technologies.
From the day your child arrives at Children’s Cancer Hospital, a team of highly specialized physicians and other health care professionals provides individualized care. This group follows your child closely throughout treatment, ensuring a personalized approach. They communicate frequently with each other and with your family.
This team includes some of the nation’s top experts in oncology, oncology surgery, radiation therapy, pathology and other disciplines. They are supported by specialized nurses, therapists and others to ensure your child receives the best possible care.
Pediatric melanoma expertise
Melanoma is rare in children and can be challenging to diagnose because it can present differently than in adults. Though melanoma may grow faster in children, they sometimes fare better than adults with the disease. If melanoma is caught early, most children do not require treatment beyond surgery.
Because melanoma in children is rare, it’s important to take your child to a comprehensive cancer center with a specialized program that treats pediatric melanoma. As part of one of the nation’s most active cancer centers, we see a larger number of pediatric melanoma patients than almost any facility in the United States. This gives us a remarkable level of experience and expertise.
Everything for children
Children’s Cancer Hospital is focused on children, with a full range of services and amenities that help make the child and family’s experience as comfortable as possible. We go beyond medical care to deliver a comprehensive experience that treats the whole child.
And at Children’s Cancer Hospital, you’re surrounded by the strength of one of the nation’s top cancer centers.
If your child has been diagnosed with melanoma, we’re here to help. Call 877-632-6789 to make an appointment or request an appointment online.
I am so grateful for all the help and care I received from my family and everyone at MD Anderson. I couldn’t have beaten cancer without those people in my life.
Anthony Ivey was just 10 years old when he was diagnosed with pediatric melanoma. While playing baseball in 2012, he’d taken a hit to the left elbow. That made him take a closer look at a flat brown lesion he’d had there for several years.
Anthony had never paid much attention to it before, but when he showed the spot to his mother, she began to monitor it. Alarmed by how quickly it was growing, she took Anthony to a local dermatologist. The doctor performed a punch biopsy.
She told Anthony it was a nevus (a usually harmless mole or birthmark), but a few weeks later, it began to grow back through the scar.
“I wasn’t scared of the mole being cancer,” Anthony says. “I just didn’t like the (lidocaine) shots they used to numb the area when they removed it, because those hurt really bad.”
Still, Anthony returned to the dermatologist, who removed a larger section of his elbow skin for biopsy. When that proved inconclusive, the doctor referred Anthony to Cynthia Herzog, M.D., at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.
That’s when they got a definitive pediatric melanoma diagnosis. “Dr. Herzog told me that I would need surgery and possibly other treatments,” Anthony says.
Treatment at MD Anderson begins
Anthony had his first surgery at MD Anderson that March. He underwent a second surgery a few weeks later to remove several lymph nodes from his arm. He also began receiving interferon intravenously for four weeks. He continued to receive that drug at home by injection for another 48 weeks.
“I went through a lot that year,” Anthony says. “I lost a lot of weight and some of my hair. And I got real tired really fast. I had no appetite, and I got a fever a lot and my body hurt. But I still went to school and did my very best.”
Anthony finally completed his pediatric melanoma treatment in 2013, and has shown no evidence of disease since then. Even a new lesion that appeared on his upper arm last November tested negative for melanoma.
“God blessed me,” he says.
Making a play to raise pediatric melanoma awareness
Now, Anthony is back to enjoying his life. He still plays both baseball and football and insists the surgeries have not limited him in any way. “I can play any sport,” he says.
The high school freshman also uses sunscreen regularly and encourages his friends to do the same. This fall, he’ll be doing his part to raise melanoma awareness by participating in the Aim for the Cure Melanoma Walk in Houston on Saturday, Sept. 17.
His hope is that by participating in the Aim for the Cure event, he will bring attention to melanoma and the importance of regular mole checks for people of all ages.
As he says, “This is a part of my life now, and I want people to know it can happen to kids.”