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Malignant Melanoma

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    May 2020

    Malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. The incidence of melanoma is rising in much of the world, and it is now the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in North America. Given also that it can occur at any age and that it is often found at early stages with a very good prognosis, it is one of the cancers most often encountered in underwriting. There are an estimated 1,300,000 melanoma survivors in U.S. currently, half of whom are under age 65.1

    Because of its usually visible location, skin melanomas are often found at early stages without evidence of spread to elsewhere in the body, with 84% remaining localized at the time of diagnosis. The prognosis generally is therefore very good: the overall 5-year survival rate for melanoma in the U.S., based on results from the SEER database, is 92%. It varies significantly by stage, however, with a 5-year survival rate of 99% for localized skin melanomas, 65% when regional lymph nodes are involved, and just 25% if there are distant metastases.2

    The incidence of melanoma is rising in much of the world, and it is now the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in North America.

    In addition, even localized melanomas have varying degrees of recurrence risk based on multiple other factors. Some of these are part of the staging criteria, such as the thickness of the lesion and the presence of ulceration. The risk increases with increasing thickness, and though staging guidelines require there to be set cut-off points (1, 2, and 4mm of thickness have been chosen), there is variable risk even within those ranges. This was recognized particularly with thin melanomas, those 1mm or less in thickness, such that a thickness of 0.8 to 1.0mm now places one into a higher stage unless a sentinel lymph node biopsy is without evidence of tumor spread. Similarly, the presence of ulceration leads to a prognosis similar to as if the thickness is one level greater.

    Using the SEER database and other research sources allows us to identify other factors which affect the prognosis. The mitotic rate of the tumor was already part of the prior (AJCC 7th edition) staging criteria, and although no longer included to keep the staging more simplified, it remains an important prognostic factor for all stages of tumor thickness. In addition, a nodular growth pattern; the presence of lymphovascular invasion; regression of the tumor of greater than 50%; and a tumor location on the scalp, neck, lip, mucosal membrane, or eye, are all independent risk factors for recurrence and increased mortality. Men tend to have worse outcomes than women, and those diagnosed at older ages have higher recurrence rates in the first five years after discovery. For accurate underwriting risk assessment, it is helpful to take these factors into account.

    The risk of recurrence, however, does not end at five years. Even for thin melanomas, one may go for many years without any evidence of disease only to present ultimately with a recurrence, and that risk persists for 15 to 20 years or more. This also needs to be factored into the underwriting risk assessment, especially for those with thicker tumors or with other higher risk features.

    Click here to read the full whitepaper that examines malignant melanoma
    Contact the Author
    Bradley Heltemes
    Dr. Bradley Heltemes, MD, DBIM, FAAIM
    Vice President and Medical Director of R&D
    Munich Re Life US

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