Question:

My father died last year from malignant melanoma that spread to his brain. I just became aware of a test that can identify whether I have the gene for malignant melanoma. Can you tell me more about it?

Answer: Malignant melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, with about 60,000 new cases in the United States and more than 8,100 deaths projected in 2007. What makes it particularly deadly is its tendency to metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body.

While family history does play a role in increasing one's risk of malignant melanoma, other factors, such as ultraviolet light exposure from sun and tanning beds, fair skin, the presence of numerous moles, and advancing age, play a greater cumulative role.

Melaris is a new blood test from Myriad Genetic Laboratories that can detect a gene mutation whose presence greatly increases one's chance of developing malignant melanoma. The average lifetime risk of developing the cancer by age 80 is around 1 percent, but jumps up to 76 percent if one has the "p16" gene mutation. Also, the presence of the gene mutation increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by age 75 to as high as 17 percent.

This test is not for everyone. Those who should consider p16 genetic testing are folks with two or more melanomas in a family or who have a family member with a history of two or more melanomas; who have families with the presence of both melanoma and pancreatic cancer in an individual, or who have a relative with a confirmed p16 gene mutation. In your case, you do not know if your father had the mutation, so one advantage for you having the test done is to identify whether you are low or high risk for malignant melanoma. That would affect how closely you're monitored.

Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: "Ask Dr. H," Box 767787, Atlanta, Ga. 30076.