What is melanoma?

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide and die. Sometimes, cells mutate (change) and begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. Rather than dying, these abnormal cells clump together to form tumors. If these tumors are cancerous (also called "malignant"), they can invade and kill your body's healthy tissues. From these tumors, cancer cells can metastasize (spread) and form new tumors in other parts of the body. By contrast, noncancerous tumors (also called "benign") do not spread to other parts of the body.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It begins in skin cells called melanocytes (say: “mel-an-oh-sites”). Melanocytes produce the substance that gives your skin its color.

Most other skin cancers don’t spread, but melanoma can spread through the whole body. If it is found early, it can be cured. If it is found late, it may cause death.

Who gets melanoma?

Anyone can get melanoma, but some people are more likely to get it. If you answer "yes" to any of the questions below, you may be more at risk. Talk with your doctor about your risk factors.

  • Has anyone in your family had cancerous moles or a melanoma?
  • Do you have many moles larger than a pencil eraser?
  • Do you have more than 50 moles of any size?
  • Did you ever get a bad sunburn that caused blisters when you were a child?
  • Does your skin usually burn but not tan?

Where do melanomas occur?

Melanomas can be anywhere on your body. In men, they are most often on the chest, stomach or back. In women, they are most often on the lower legs.

What does a melanoma look like?

A melanoma might look like a mole or a bump or growth on your skin. Melanomas often do not look bad at first.

The ABCDE rule can help you remember what to look for when you're checking any moles on your skin:

A for asymmetry: A mole that, when divided in half, doesn't look the same on both sides

B for border: A mole with edges that are blurry or jagged

C for color: Changes in the color of a mole, including darkening, spread of color, loss of color, or the appearance of multiple colors such as blue, red, white, pink, purple or gray

D for diameter: A mole larger than 1/4 inch in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser)

E for elevation: A mole that is raised above the skin and has a rough surface

You should also watch for the following skin changes:

  • A mole that bleeds
  • A fast-growing mole
  • A scaly or crusted growth on the skin
  • A sore that won't heal
  • A mole that itches
  • A place on your skin that feels rough, like sandpaper

If you notice a mole that has changed, or if you have a new mole that doesn't look like your other moles, visit your doctor right away.


How can I keep from getting melanoma?

The most important way to prevent melanoma is to limit your sun exposure. The following are some ways to do this:

  • Avoid the strong midday sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • When you are outside, try to spend your time in shaded areas as much as possible.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat (to shade your face and protect your ears).
  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants while you are out in the sun.
  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Put the sunscreen on 30 minutes before you go outside. Put it on again every 2 to 3 hours after sweating and swimming.
  • Do not use sunbeds or tanning salons.
  • If you are worried about a spot on your skin, tell your doctor about it.
Sunburns in childhood are the most damaging. Children younger than 6 months of age should never be outside in direct sunshine. Children 6 months of age or older should wear sunscreen every day.