Skip to Content
Melanoma is a very the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It is the leading cause of death from skin disease.
Melanoma can also involve the colored part of the eye.
Other common types of skin cancer are:
Skin cancer - melanoma; Malignant melanoma; Lentigo maligna
Melanoma is caused by changes in skin cells called melanocytes. These cells make a skin color pigment called melanin. Melanin is responsible for skin and hair color.
Melanoma can appear on normal skin. Or, it can begin as a mole or other area that then changes in appearance. Some moles that are present at birth may develop into melanomas.
There are four major types of melanoma:
In rare cases, melanomas appear in the mouth, iris of the eye, or retina at the back of the eye. These may be found during dental or eye exams. In very rare cases, a melanoma develops in the vagina, esophagus, anus, urinary tract or small intestine.
Melanoma is not as common as other types of skin cancer, such as basal cell cancer. But more and more persons are developing melanoma.
The risk of developing melanoma increases with age, though it can also be seen in young people.
You are more likely to develop melanoma if you:
Other risk factors include:
A mole, sore, lump, or growth on the skin can be a sign of melanoma or other skin cancer. A sore or growth that bleeds, or changes in color can also be a sign of skin cancer.
The ABCDE system can help you remember possible symptoms of melanoma:
The key to successfully treating melanoma is recognizing symptoms early. You might not notice a small spot if you do not look carefully. Have yearly skin checks by a dermatologist, and examine your own skin once a month. Use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see places. Call your doctor if you notice anything unusual.
Your doctor will check your skin and look at the size, shape, color, and texture of any suspicious areas.
If your doctor thinks you might have skin cancer, a piece of skin from the growth will be removed. This is called a skin biopsy. The sample is sent to a lab for examination under a microscope.
A sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy may be done in some people with melanoma to see if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Once melanoma has been diagnosed, CT scans or other types of x-rays may be done to see if the cancer has spread.
Surgery is needed to treat melanoma. The skin cancer and some surrounding area will be removed. How much skin is removed depends on how deep the melanoma has grown.
If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, these lymph nodes may also be removed. After surgery, you may receive a medicine called interferon.
Treatment is more difficult when the melanoma has spread to other organs. In this case, it usually cannot be cured. Treatment involves shrinking the skin cancer and making you as comfortable as possible. You may receive:
If you have melanoma that is hard to treat, you might consider enrolling in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor for more information. Researchers continue to study new treatments.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
How well a patient does depends on many things, including how soon the cancer was diagnosed, and how far it has spread.
If caught early, some melanomas can be cured.
Melanoma that is very deep or has spread to the lymph nodes is more likely to return after treatment. If it is deeper than 4 mm or has spread to the lymph nodes, the cancer is more likely to have spread to other tissues and organs.
Melanoma usually cannot be cured when the cancer has spread beyond the skin and nearby lymph nodes.
If you have had melanoma and recovered, it is very important to examine your body regularly for any unusual changes. Your risk of melanoma increases once you have had this cancer. Melanoma can return years later. Usually, people who have had melanoma are checked by their skin doctor several times a year.
Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body very quickly.
Melanoma treatment can cause side effects, including pain, nausea, and fatigue.
Call your health care provider if you notice a new growth or any other changes in your skin. You should also call if an existing spot becomes painful, swollen, or inflamed, or if it starts to bleed or itch.
Some people should see a dermatologist for regular skin exams. These include people with:
A skin doctor can examine you and tell you whether you need regular skin checks. Sometimes, unusual moles are removed to prevent them from turning into melanoma.
You should also examine your own skin once a month, using a mirror to check hard-to-see places. Call your doctor if you notice any changes.
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to reduce your exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet light is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to avoid sun exposure during these hours. Protect your skin by wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, long skirt, or pant when you do have to be outside. The following tips can also help:
Other important facts to help you avoid too much sun exposure:
Bichakjian CK, Halpern AC, Johnson TM and the work group of the American Academy of Dermatology. Guidelines of care for the management of primary cutaneous melanoma. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011;65:1032-1047.
Gangadhar TC, Fecher LA, Miller CJ, et al. Melanoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 69.
National Cancer Institute: PDQ Melanoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Last modified March 19, 2014. Available at http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/melanoma/HealthProfessional. Accessed May 5, 2014.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. (NCCN Guidelines): Melanoma. Version 4.2014. Available at http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/melanoma.pdf. Accessed May 5, 2014.
Reviewed By: Richard J. Moskowitz, MD, Dermatologist in Private Practice, Mineola, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.