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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.

What increases my risk for melanoma?

Healthcare providers do not know exactly what causes melanoma. The following increases your risk of melanoma:

  • Sun exposure
  • A family member has had melanoma
  • At least 1 blistering sunburn as a child or teenager
  • Light colored skin, hair, or eyes
  • Freckles or moles that increase or change
  • Skin that burns rather than tans when you are in the sun
  • Skin diseases, such as xeroderma pigmentosum

What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma?

Melanoma may appear as a new mole, or in moles you already have. Men often get new moles between the shoulder and hip. Women usually get new moles on their arms and legs. Moles may also be found on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, or under the nail bed. Healthcare providers describe a melanoma based on the ABCDE system:

  • Asymmetry: If a line is drawn through the middle of the mole, the 2 halves are unequal.
  • Border: The edges of the mole are not smooth.
  • Color: The color can be blue, black, brown, or red.
  • Diameter: The size of the mole is larger than a pencil eraser.
  • Evolution: The mole changes in appearance and in symptoms such as bleeding and changes in shape, size, or color. The area may also itch or feel hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender.

How is melanoma diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your skin and look at the size, shape, and color of your moles. You may need more than one of the following tests:

  • Skin biopsy: This is done to remove part or all of the mole, sore, or lump. You will be given medicine to numb the skin. After the biopsy, you may need stitches and a bandage to close the wound. The tissue sample is then sent to a lab for tests.
  • Chest x-ray: These may be done to see if the melanoma has spread to your lungs.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures. The pictures may show if the melanoma has spread. You may be given contrast dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.
  • Sentinel node biopsy: This procedure may be done to see if the melanoma has spread to lymph nodes close to the mole.

How is melanoma treated?

  • Biological therapy: These are used to help your immune system fight the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: This is used to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: This uses x-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Surgery: You may need surgery to remove melanoma from a larger area of skin. Surgery may also be done if the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes or other parts of your body.

What are the risks of melanoma?

You could get an infection or bleed more than expected during surgery. Treatment may not be able to kill all the melanoma. Even with treatment, the melanoma may come back. If not treated, the melanoma will spread to other parts of your body. Once cancer spreads, it is more difficult to treat, and may become life-threatening.

How should I take care of my skin?

  • Protect your skin from the sun's ultraviolet (UVA UVB) rays:
    • Wear sunscreen that has an SPF (sun protectant factor) of 15 or higher: Make sure it has UVA and UVB protection. Follow directions when you use sunscreen. Put on more sunscreen if you swim, sweat, or are in the sun for longer than an hour. Protect your lips by using lipsticks and lip balms that contain sunscreen.
    • Stay out of the sun between 10 AM and 4 PM: This is when the sun is strongest and most damaging to your skin.
    • Wear protective clothing: Long-sleeved shirts and pants will protect your arms and legs when you are out in the sun. A wide brimmed hat can protect both your face and neck. Wear sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.
  • Do not use tanning booths: These can damage your skin as much as the sun can.
  • Look for new bumps on your skin once a week: Check your entire body, including your scalp. Look for moles that change in shape, size, color, or texture . Know what your regular birthmarks and moles look like.

Where can I find more information?

  • American Cancer Society
    250 Williams Street
    Atlanta , GA 30303
    Phone: 1- 800 - 227-2345
    Web Address:
  • The Skin Cancer Foundation
    149 Madison Avenue, Suite 901
    New York , NY 10016
    Phone: 1- 212 - 725-5176
    Web Address:

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have chills, a cough, or feel weak and achy.
  • You have a mole that changes in shape, size, color, or texture.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have sudden trouble breathing.
  • You have chest pain.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Melanoma

Associated drugs

Micromedex® Care Notes

Symptoms and treatments

Mayo Clinic Reference