Melanoma 101: Introduction to a Deadly Skin Cancer

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Melanoma facts

  • Melanoma is a cancer that develops in pigment cells called melanocytes.
  • Patients themselves are the first to detect many melanomas.
  • Caught early, most melanomas can be cured with relatively minor surgery.
  • Melanoma can be more serious than the other forms of skin cancer, because it may spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and cause serious illness and death.
  • Spots suspicious for melanoma show one or more of the following features (the ABCDs): Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color changes, a Diameter more than the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Elevated risk factors for melanoma include Caucasian (white) ancestry, fair skin, light hair and light-colored eyes, a history of intense sun exposure, close blood relatives with melanoma, and moles that are unusually numerous, large, irregular, or "funny looking."
  • Doctors diagnose melanoma by biopsy (removing a piece of skin for analysis).
  • The most common forms of melanoma are superficial spreading melanoma, nodular melanoma, and lentigo maligna.
  • Treatment of melanoma is primarily by surgical removal.
  • Changing or suspicious spots should be brought to medical attention right away.


Melanoma is a cancer that develops in melanocytes, the pigment cells present in the skin. It can be more serious than the other forms of skin cancer because it may spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and cause serious illness and death. About 50,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States every year.

Because most melanomas occur on the skin where they can be seen, patients themselves are often the first to detect many melanomas. Early detection and diagnosis are crucial. Caught early, most melanomas can be cured with relatively minor surgery.

This article is written from the standpoint of the patient. In other words, instead of describing the disease in exhaustive detail, I will try to help answer the questions: "How do I know if I have melanoma?" and "Should I should be checked for it?"

Spots on the skin

Guideline # 1: Nobody can diagnose him- or herself. If you see a spot that looks as though it is new or changing, show it to a doctor. When it comes to spots on the skin, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Everybody gets spots on their skin. The older we are, the more spots we have. Some of these are freckles, others are moles, and still others are made up of collections of tissue, such as blood vessels or pigment cells. Most of these spots are benign. That means they are neither cancerous nor on the way to becoming cancerous.


Guideline # 2: The vast majority of moles stay as moles and do not turn into anything else.

Some people are born with moles (the medical name is "nevus" plural "nevi"). Almost everyone develops them, starting in childhood. On the average, people have about 25 moles, though some have fewer and others many more. Moles may be flat or raised, and they may range in color from tan to light brown to black.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/24/2014

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Melanoma (Skin Cancer) - Symptoms Question: What did your melanoma look like when you first noticed it? What was the size of the growth?
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Get information about skin changes that may indicate you have skin cancer.

Skin Changes: How to Spot Skin Cancer

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, and people with fair skin and light eyes whose skin has a tendency to burn easily in the sun are most susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun's UV rays.

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