Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can form in a mole or appear suddenly as a new spot on the skin. When found and treated early, the cure rate is nearly 100 percent. However, if melanoma spreads to other parts of the body, it can be fatal.

Risk Factors

Exposure to ultraviolet light (UV), whether from the sun or indoor tanning is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma.

Other risk factors include:

  • A history of melanoma in a close blood relative
  • Light skin, hair and eyes
  • Moles, especially unusual moles that are larger than normal or have uneven edges
  • Past blistering sunburns or a history of indoor tanning
  • A previous melanoma or other skin cancer
  • Weak immune system

Men over 50 have a higher risk than the general population, but melanoma occurs in people of all genders, ages and races. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in young adults age 25 to 29 and the second most common in 15 to 29 year-olds.

The ABCDE’s of Melanoma

Because the number of people diagnosed with melanoma is on the rise, it is important learn the warning signs and examine the skin regularly. The ABCDE’s of melanoma can help you remember what to look for when examining moles and other spots:

  • A for Asymmetry – one half is different from the other half
  • B for Border – that is irregular, poorly defined or scalloped
  • C for Color – that varies from one area to another in shades of tan, brown, black and sometime white, red or blue
  • D for Diameter – larger than a pencil eraser
  • E for Evolving – a mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or changes in size, shape or color

Self-Exams for Early Detection

About once a month, take the following steps to examine skin on the entire body for the ABCDE warning signs. Ask someone to help you check places that are hard to see.

  1. Examine the body front and back in a mirror, then on both sides with arms raised.
  2. Examine the back of the neck and scalp with a hand mirror.
  3. Bend elbows and look at the forearms, back of the upper arms and palms.
  4. Check the back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
  5. Look at the back of the legs and feet, spaces between toes and soles.

If you find any spots that are different from the others, or changing, itching or bleeding, make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist right away.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your dermatologist will perform a skin biopsy removing all or part of any suspicious mole or growth to test for melanoma.

If melanoma is found, treatment depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin, whether it had spread to other parts of the body and the patient’s overall health.

In the earliest stage, melanoma grows in the outer layer of the skin, and surgery to remove the cancer may be the only treatment necessary. There are two common procedures for surgically removing melanoma:

  • Excision
    The melanoma and some of the normal-looking skin around it are removed surgically using local anesthesia.
  • Mohs surgery
    Performed by a dermatologist with specialized training, Mohs surgery removes the visible cancer in layers until cancer cells can no longer be seen under a microscope. This technique completely removes the skin cancer while minimizing the removal or healthy skin.

Treatment for melanoma that has grown deeper into the skin or spread is more complex. Your dermatologist will discuss your treatment options.

Reducing the Risk of Melanoma

The most important step you can take to reduce your risk of melanoma is to protect your skin from sun exposure and avoid indoor tanning. Find more information at The Sun and Your Skin.