Skin Cancer, Melanoma
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is a kind of skin cancer. It isn't as common as other types of skin cancer, but it is the most serious.
Melanoma usually looks like a flat mole with uneven edges and a shape that is not the same on both sides. It may be black, brown, or more than one color. Most melanomas show up as a new spot or skin growth. But they can form in an existing mole or other mark on the skin.
Melanoma can affect your skin only, or it may spread to your organs and bones. As with other cancers, treatment for melanoma works best when the cancer is found early.
This topic is about melanoma that occurs in the skin. It doesn't cover melanoma that occurs in the eye or in any other part of the body besides the skin.
What causes melanoma?
You can get melanoma by spending too much time in the sun. Too much UV radiation from sun exposure causes normal skin cells to become abnormal. These abnormal cells quickly grow out of control and attack the tissues around them.
You are at higher risk for melanoma if you have fair skin, a family history of melanoma, or many abnormal, or atypical, moles. These moles may fade into the skin and have a flat part that is level with the skin. They may be smooth or slightly scaly, or they may look rough and "pebbly."
What are the symptoms?
You may not have any symptoms in the early stages of melanoma. Or a melanoma may be sore, or it may itch or bleed.
Melanoma may look like a flat, brown or black mole that has uneven Reference edges Opens New Window Reference Opens New Window. Melanomas usually have an irregular or asymmetrical shape. This means that one half of the mole doesn't match the other half. They may be any size but are usually 0.25 in. (6 mm) or larger.
Melanomas can be found anywhere on your body. Most of the time, they are on the upper back in men and women and on the legs of women.
How is melanoma diagnosed?
Your doctor will check your skin to look for melanoma. If your doctor thinks that you have melanoma, he or she will remove a sample of tissue Reference (biopsy) Opens New Window from the area around the melanoma. Another doctor, called a Reference pathologist Opens New Window, will look at the tissue to check for cancer cells.
If your biopsy shows melanoma, you may need to have more tests to find out if it has spread to your Reference lymph nodes Opens New Window.
How is it treated?
The most common treatment is surgery to remove the melanoma. That is all the treatment that you may need for early-stage melanomas that have not spread to other parts of your body.
Other treatments for melanoma include Reference chemotherapy Opens New Window, Reference radiation therapy Opens New Window, Reference immunotherapy Opens New Window, and Reference targeted therapy Opens New Window.
Can you prevent melanoma?
The best way to prevent all kinds of skin cancer, including melanoma, is to protect yourself whenever you are out in the sun.
- Try to stay out of the sun during the middle of the day (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
- Wear sun-protective clothes when you are outside, such as a hat that shades your face, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants.
- Use sunscreen every day. Your sunscreen should have an Reference SPF Opens New Window of least 15. Look for a sunscreen that protects against both types of Reference UV radiation Opens New Window in the sun's rays—UVA and UVB. When you are outdoors for long periods of time, reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.
- Use a higher SPF when you are at higher elevations.
- Avoid sunbathing and tanning salons.
Check your skin every month for odd marks, moles, or sores that will not heal. Check all of your skin, but pay extra attention to areas that get a lot of sun, such as your hands, arms, and back. Ask your doctor to check your skin during regular physical exams or at least once a year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about melanoma:
Living with melanoma:
|By:||Reference Healthwise Staff||Last Revised: Reference October 12, 2012|
|Medical Review:||Reference Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Reference Amy McMichael, MD - Dermatology