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About Melanoma

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Melanoma is a form of cancer which arises in melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells in the skin which produce pigment (melanin) that gives the skin its color.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of melanoma:

  • New sores or lesions that may look like a mole but are changing rapidly in appearance
  • A mole with any of these features:
    • Asymmetry or lopsidedness
    • Irregular or jagged borders
    • More than one color (for example, brown and black or multiple shades of brown)
    • Diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser (6 mm)
    • Changing in appearance over a few months
    • Any symptoms such as crusting, bleeding, or itching

Most moles are benign and do not dramatically change appearance in adults. However, rarely a mole can become melanoma. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about melanoma from the National Cancer Institute.

Image Showing Layers of the Skin

Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.
Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient receives depends on the stage of the melanoma, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy (for example, if your tumor has a BRaf mutation)
  • Immunotherapy
  • Clinical trials testing new therapies

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Skin Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for people with melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of skin cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments.

Find a Skin Cancer Specialist

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk. Protecting your skin is an important part of skin cancer prevention.

The chance of getting melanoma increases with sun exposure. These are other risk factors:

  • A personal history of melanoma
  • A family history of melanoma or unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome)
  • Having had sunburns that blistered, especially as a child or teenager
  • History of tanning bed use
  • If you have numerous (more than 50) moles
  • If you have unusual moles (very large or irregular shape)
  • Having fair skin
  • Having red hair and blue, green, grey or light-colored eyes
  • Having a weakened immune system, including:
    • Patients who have organ transplants and are on immune-suppressing medications
    • Metastatic cancer patients
    • Actively undergoing treatment for cancer

Learn more about ways to prevent skin cancer and about cancer screenings.

Diagnosis & Stages

Screening & Diagnosis of Melanoma

Screening looks for cancer before you have symptoms. Screening can also check for anything unusual if you notice changes in your skin. Screening can rule out an issue or help find cancer at an early stage, when it may be easier to treat.

Doctors use these tests to screen for and diagnose melanoma:

  • Skin exam: A health care provider checks for moles, birthmarks, or other areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes a tissue sample that can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Melanoma

Cancer stages show whether cancer has spread within or around the skin or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

There are multiple stages of melanoma:

  • Stage 0 (melanoma in situ): Malignant cells are confined to the epidermis (outer layer of skin) and have not invaded the deeper levels of skin.
  • Stage I (IA & IB): Malignant cells have not invaded greater than 2 millimeters below the surface of the skin.
  • Stage II (IIA , IIB, & IIC): Malignant cells have invaded greater than 2 but less than 4 millimeters below the surface of the skin.
  • Stage III: Malignant cells, regardless of depth of invasion or ulceration, have spread to the lymph nodes or have made smaller tumors near the primary tumor.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if melanoma spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually melanoma cells. The disease is metastatic melanoma, not bone cancer.

Learn more about the stages of melanoma from the National Cancer Institute.

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