Mucosal Melanoma

Mucosal melanoma is a rare form of melanoma that develops in the mucous membranes of the body, such as those lining the mouth, nose, throat, anus, or genital areas. It is different from cutaneous melanoma, which develops in the skin.

About half of mucosal melanomas start in the head and neck, in areas including:

  • Mouth
  • Nose or sinuses
  • Large airways, such as the windpipe
  • Esophagus (tube connecting the mouth to the stomach)

Most of the remaining mucosal melanomas occur in: 

  • Lower large intestine (rectum and anus)
  • Women’s reproductive organs, including the vulva (outer genitals at the opening of the vagina) and the vagina (muscular canal connecting the uterus to the vulva)
  • Urinary tract, usually the bladder and urethra (tube that carries urine out of the body from the bladder)

Mucosal melanoma is often diagnosed at a later stage than cutaneous melanoma, which can make it more difficult to treat. It is also more aggressive and has a poorer prognosis than cutaneous melanoma.

What are the signs and symptoms of mucosal melanoma?

The symptoms of mucosal melanoma can vary depending on the location of the cancer, but may include:

  • A lump or growth in the affected area 
  • Bleeding or discharge from the affected area 
  • Pain or discomfort in the affected area 
  • Hemorrhoids that don’t heal
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing (if the cancer is in the throat)

How common is mucosal melanoma?

Mucosal melanoma is rare, accounting for only about 1% of all melanoma cases. It is estimated that there are around 1,200 new cases of mucosal melanoma diagnosed in the United States each year.

How serious is mucosal melanoma?

Mucosal melanoma is a serious and rare form of melanoma that can be difficult to treat. An early and accurate diagnosis of mucosal melanoma is generally hard to obtain, so it is often diagnosed at a later stage than cutaneous melanoma, which can make it more challenging to manage.

Mucosal melanoma is generally more aggressive than cutaneous melanoma, and it has a poorer prognosis. The prognosis for mucosal melanoma depends on several factors, including the location and size of the tumor, the stage of the cancer at diagnosis, and the patient's overall health. The five-year survival rate for mucosal melanoma varies depending on the primary location of the mucosal melanoma, whether it has spread, and your overall health status.

However, it's important to note that survival rates are just statistics, and they do not predict the outcome for any individual patient. With early detection and appropriate treatment, some people with mucosal melanoma can achieve long-term remission or even a cure.

If you have been diagnosed with mucosal melanoma, it's important to work closely with a team of medical professionals who have experience treating this type of cancer. They can help you understand your treatment options and develop a personalized plan that takes into account your individual needs and circumstances.

Who gets mucosal melanoma?

Some risk factors for mucosal melanoma include:

  • Age: Mucosal melanoma is more common in older adults. 
  • Gender: Women are a little more likely to develop mucosal melanoma than men. 
  • Race: Mucosal melanoma is more common in people with darker skin tones, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. 
  • Family history: People with a family history of melanoma may be at increased risk for mucosal melanoma. 
  • Exposure to certain chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals, such as those used in the textile or leather industries, may increase the risk of mucosal melanoma.

It's important to note that many people who develop mucosal melanoma do not have any known risk factors, and that the disease can occur in anyone. If you have concerns about your risk for mucosal melanoma, it's important to talk to your doctor.

What causes mucosal melanoma?

Potential causes of mucosal melanoma are not yet fully understood. Researchers believe mucosal melanoma to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Unlike cutaneous melanoma, and based on the locations where mucosal melanoma arises, it is not caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

How is mucosal melanoma treated?

Treatment for mucosal melanoma that is localized, and has not spread, generally involves surgery to remove the tumor potentially followed with radiation therapy. 

Advanced mucosal melanoma, sometimes called metastatic mucosal melanoma, that is unresectable can be treated with radiation therapy. 

Mucosal melanoma typically does not respond as well to approved immunotherapies when compared to cutaneous melanoma. Clinical trials focused on developing therapies specifically focused on patients with mucosal melanoma are underway. These trials are testing new treatments including different types of immunotherapies and drugs targeted to genomic alterations (mutations) that are specifically present in subsets of mucosal melanomas. Because mucosal melanoma is rare, it's important to work with a team of clinical professionals from different medical disciplines who have experience treating this type of melanoma.

For patients facing rare melanoma subtypes, including those with mucosal melanoma, it’s important to see a doctor who specializes in treating patients with your specific type of mucosal melanoma. Learn more aboutchoosing your doctor and getting a second opinion for mucosal melanoma.

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Photos of Mucosal Melanoma:

Mucosal Melanoma in Mouth

Mucosal Melanoma in Mouth

Photo Credit: CDC/ Carl Washington, M.D., Emory Univ. School of Medicine; Mona Saraiya, MD, MPH