What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer. Cancer is a condition that occurs when cells in the body multiply in an abnormal way. Different forms of cancer get their name after the place in the body where they start. They keep their original name even if they spread to other parts of the body.

Melanoma gets its name from melanocytes, which are skin cells that produce melanin. Melanin gives skin its color. Melanomas can occur anywhere on the body but show up most often on the parts that see sunlight often: the face, arms, legs and back. Melanoma can also occur in the eyes, under the fingernails or toenails, on the soles of the feet or in such internal organs as the mouth, nose, vagina or anus. Melanomas on the skin are more common.

Common related conditions
Skin Cancer Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

Causes of melanoma

Doctors aren't sure of the exact causes of melanoma, but they do know that ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases the risk.

UV radiation comes from sunlight and tanning beds and lamps that give off UV radiation to give people the appearance of a suntan. Where a person lives and genetic factors probably also influence who gets melanoma since sunlight and other sources of UV radiation don’t cause all melanomas.

Risk factors of melanoma

Things that can increase your risk of melanoma include:

  • Having light-colored skin
  • Living in a place closer to the earth's equator or at a higher elevation above sea level, where you have more exposure to UV radiation
  • Having more than 50 normal-looking moles on your body
  • Having at least one or more odd-looking moles on your body
  • Having a history of one or more serious sunburns
  • Having a personal history or close relative who has had melanoma

Wearing protective clothing and sunscreen, staying inside during the middle of the day and being familiar with the moles on your body can help to reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Symptoms of melanoma

The earliest signs of melanoma are having one or more existing moles that change their appearance or having one or more new growths on the skin that appear colored or look unusual.

Most normal moles are small, round or oval-shaped, all one color and surrounded by a border.

Moles that could be a sign of melanoma may be:

  • Odd shaped
  • Have an irregular border
  • Change color
  • Get bigger
  • Change shape
  • Become itchy
  • Start to bleed

Not all odd-looking moles are cancerous, and not all cancerous moles look the same.

Diagnosis of melanoma

The only way to diagnose melanoma for sure is to do a biopsy. With this test, the doctor removes all or part of a mole or growth that shows signs it could be cancerous. A trained specialist in a lab then examines the mole or growth sample. Doctors usually try to remove the entire mole or growth if that's possible. If not, they take a sample of it.

Some doctors recommend regular exams of the entire body to look for warning signs of skin cancer. You might do these checks yourself at home with mirrors or visit your doctor on a regular basis for an exam.

The exam involves looking at all the skin that covers your entire body from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet. It should include the fronts, sides and backs of your arms and legs, groin area, scalp, fingernails, spaces between your toes — everything. This way you become familiar with the moles and marks on your skin and can notice any changes.

Treatments for melanoma

Melanoma is treatable, especially if it's found early. In that case, the treatment involves a biopsy or minor surgery to remove the melanoma. Removing the normal skin around the melanoma may be necessary as well to try to be sure the entire cancerous area is gone.

If the melanoma has spread, or metastasized, beyond the skin, you and your doctor may consider treatments that are more aggressive. These could include:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Specialized oral medication
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery to remove lymph nodes affected by the cancer
  • Targeted drugs for advanced melanoma that's from a certain type of genetic cell mutation

Recovery from melanoma

If treatment removes early-stage melanoma, that may be the only treatment necessary.

Your doctor may instruct you to return for follow-up care to the wound or for regular skin cancer screenings.

Find a skin cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you