Melanoma: 10 Things to Know

  • Doctor examining patient's back
    What to Know About This Quickly Spreading Skin Cancer
    Each year, nearly 100,000 Americans find out they have melanoma. It is a form of skin cancer arising from skin cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin color. Melanoma makes up less than 1% of skin cancers, but it tends to spread quickly and accounts for almost all deaths from skin cancer. However, it is almost always curable when you catch it early. Learn about early diagnosis and nine other important melanoma facts.

  • Suntanning woman
    1. Exposure to UV light is the main risk factor.
    Almost 90% of melanoma cases are due to exposure to UV light. This includes both natural sun exposure and tanning bed use. Your chances of developing it double after you have just five sunburns. However, your genes may also put you at risk. About one of every 10 people with melanoma has a family history of it. Other risk factors include having blond or red hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and many moles.

  • Skin cancer
    2. You can recognize the signs and symptoms of melanoma using the ABCDE system.
    A is for asymmetry—a mole that is larger on one side than the other. B is for borders with uneven or notched edges. C is for color. Most melanomas are either brown or black. However, melanomas can also be multi-colored, speckled, skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue, or white. D is for diameter—larger than 6 mm or the size of a pencil eraser. E is for evolving—changes in size, color or thickness. Moles that start to itch or bleed can also be signs of melanoma.

  • Woman with mole on back
    3. Skin exams find many melanomas early.
    Performing a skin self-exam can help you spot melanoma early. It's a good idea to see your doctor for a baseline exam to make sure everything looks good. Your doctor can also tell you whether you have any moles or freckles that you should watch carefully. People at high risk of developing melanoma may need a regular skin exam with a dermatologist.

  • Skin biopsy
    4. A biopsy is the only way to know for sure if a mole is cancerous.
    If your doctor sees a suspicious area, he or she will likely take a skin biopsy. A biopsy removes a small tissue sample to check it for cancer. It is the only way to know for sure if a mole or skin spot is cancerous or benign. There are various methods of removing the skin sample. In some cases, the doctor may remove the entire tumor during an excisional biopsy. The results will guide your next steps.

  • Patient with doctor
    5. A complete diagnosis is necessary to stage melanoma.
    Diagnosis and staging often go hand-in-hand. Your doctor may order lymph node biopsies and imaging exams, such as CT and MRI, to determine the extent of cancer. Blood tests and genetic tests may also be necessary for a complete diagnosis. All of this information helps your doctor stage and classify the cancer and plan the most effective treatment.

  • Woman talking with doctor
    6. Melanoma stage guides treatment decisions.
    There are five stages for melanoma: 0, I, II, III and IV. Lower stage cancers usually have a better outlook because they are more likely to respond to treatment. Higher numbers indicate more advanced disease. The stage of your melanoma depends on its depth and thickness and whether it has spread to your lymph nodes or other organs. Once your doctor confirms the stage, you can begin to develop a treatment plan.

  • Skin stitches
    7. Surgery is the main treatment for all stages of melanoma.
    Surgery removes the melanoma and some surrounding healthy skin. There are a few different techniques for doing this. After extensive surgery, skin grafting may be necessary. In early stages, surgery has a high likelihood of cure and may be the only treatment necessary. Doctors may still recommend surgery if melanoma cancer has spread. In this case, surgery can’t cure melanoma, but it may extend life expectancy and relieve symptoms.

  • suntanning
    10. You can take charge of your skin health.
    General prevention strategies for any cancer involve controlling risk factors if possible. For melanoma, minimizing UV light exposure is the main controllable risk factor. This includes using sunscreen, not using tanning beds, seeking shade, and wearing UV-protective clothing and accessories during exposure to sunlight. Talk with your doctor about your risk and ask if you should take additional steps to prevent melanoma and other types of skin cancer.

Melanoma: 10 Things to Know

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
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  14. What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer? American Cancer Society.
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Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.