What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer but more dangerous because it’s more likely to spread if not caught early. Melanoma starts in a certain type of skin cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes form a brown pigment called melanin, which gives the skin its color. Melanin also protects the deeper layers of the skin from some of the harmful effects of the sun. Usually, when skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more melanin, causing the skin to tan or darken.

Melanomas can form anywhere on the body. Common sites include the chest, back, legs, neck and face. Melanomas can also form in other parts of your body such as the eyes, mouth, genitals and anal area, but these are much less common than melanoma of the skin.

Signs include changes in the shape, color or appearance of a mole or pigmented (brown) area of the skin. Risk factors include excessive exposure to sunlight or tanning beds, a fair complexion, a weakened immune system, history of other cancers, family history, history of blistering sunburns and several environmental factors.

Diagnosis of melanoma involves physical skin exam and skin biopsy. In addition, one or more of the following tests may be used to find out if the cancer has spread:

  • Additional imaging (CT scan, PET scan, MRI scan, ultrasound)
  • Lymph node biopsy
  • Blood chemistry study

Treatment depends on what stage the cancer is at (how much it has spread to other parts of the body) and several other factors but may include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Chemotherapy

Your full team of care providers will work closely together to review your diagnostic tests, identify the best course of treatment particular to you, and help you understand your diagnosis and what to expect with any treatment you have.

More information about melanoma (National Cancer Institute)