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(Cutaneous Melanoma; Malignant Melanoma)

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Melanoma is a skin cancer of the melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce skin color and give moles their dark color. Under normal conditions, moles are benign skin tumors. Sometimes, though, a mole can develop into melanoma. A new mole may also be an early melanoma.

Melanoma is less common than carcinoma skin cancers . But melanomas are more dangerous. They are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.



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Skin cancer is caused by:

  • Ultraviolet radiation from the sun
  • Artificial radiation from sun lamps and tanning booths

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing melanoma. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Certain types of moles called dysplastic nevi, or atypical moles (which look similar to melanoma)
  • Large dysplastic nevi present at birth
  • Age: early adulthood, later in life
  • Race: white
  • Fair skin
  • Red or blonde hair
  • Light-colored eyes
  • Family members with melanoma
  • Excessive skin exposure to the sun without protective clothing or sunscreen
  • Suppressed immune system


Melanomas are not usually painful. The first sign is often a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of an existing mole. Melanomas also may appear as a new, dark, discolored, or abnormal mole. Remember that most people have moles, and almost all moles are benign.

The following are signs that a mole may be a melanoma:

  • Uneven shape—The shape of one half does not match the shape of the other half.
  • Ragged edges—The edges are ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular and the pigment may spread into surrounding skin.
  • Uneven color—The color is uneven with shades of black, brown or tan, and possibly even white, gray, pink, red, or blue.
  • Change in size—The mole changes in size, usually growing larger. They are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil (5 mm or ¼ inch).
  • Change in texture—The mole may begin to have fine scales. In more advanced cases, a mole may become hard or lumpy.
  • Bleeding—The mole may start to itch. Or, it may ooze or bleed in more advanced cases.

Sign of Potential Melanoma

Skin Cancer Sign: Irregular Border on Mole

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The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor will examine your skin and moles. A biopsy will be taken of moles that may be cancerous. Other moles will be watched over time.

The doctor may also examine lymph nodes in the groin, underarm, neck, or areas near the suspicious mole. Enlarged lymph nodes may suggest the spread of melanoma. The doctor may need to remove a sample of lymph node tissue to test for cancer cells.


Once melanoma is found, tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on whether the cancer has spread.


Surgery involves the removal of the melanoma and some healthy tissue surrounding it. If a large area of tissue is removed, a skin graft may be done at the same time. Lymph nodes near the tumor may be removed, as well.


This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given in many forms, including pill, injection, and via a catheter.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy involves substances made by the body to increase or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. Examples include:

  • Interferon
  • Interleukin 2
  • Melanoma vaccines

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This is not a cure for melanoma. It is used in combination with other therapies.


To reduce your chance of getting melanoma:

  • Avoid spending too much time in the sun.
  • Protect your skin from the sun. For example, wear a shirt, wide brim hat, and sunglasses.
  • Use sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
  • Avoid exposing your skin to the sun between:
    • 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. (standard time)
    • 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. (daylight savings time)
  • Avoid sun lamps and tanning booths.

Take the following steps to find melanoma in its early stages:

  • See your doctor if you think you have melanoma.
  • If you have many moles or a family history of melanoma, have your skin checked regularly for changes in moles.
  • Ask your doctor to show you how to do a skin self-exam .


American Academy of Dermatology

American Cancer Society

Skin Cancer Foundation


Canadian Dermatology Association


Melanoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated July 2008. Accessed July 28, 2008.

What is melanoma skin cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: . Updated July 2008. Accessed July 28, 2008.

What you need to know about melanoma. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: . Published March 2003. Accessed July 28, 2008.

Last reviewed November 2007 by Ross Zeltser, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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