Melanoma care, from screening and diagnosis to treatment and follow-up services, plus support for your well-being – mind, body and spirit – through every phase of care.
What it is
Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, but it is the most likely to grow and spread.
It starts in skin cells that produce a pigment called melanin. Most melanomas are brown or black, but they can also be other colors like pink, blue, tan or white.
Melanoma can occur on any area of the body, including the palms of the hand, under the nails or on the soles of the feet. Sometimes it occurs in areas not typically exposed to UV light. It sometimes starts in a mole, but it also can develop as a new spot on the skin.
Signs of melanoma can include a new spot on the skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape or color. Use the ABCDE rule to help identify spots that might be melanoma:
- Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other half.
- Border: The edges are irregular, ragged or blurry.
- Color: The color may include different shades of brown or black, sometimes with pink, red, white or blue patches.
- Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch or the size of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color.
Melanoma doesn’t always fit these rules. Talk to your doctor about any changes or new spots on your skin, or growths that look different from other moles on your skin.
Good to know
There are certain risk factors for melanoma, but the exact cause is not always known.
Like other forms of skin cancer, melanoma can be caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Most UV light comes from sunlight, but it also comes from tanning beds.
Melanoma can also run in families. This means there may be gene changes that increase the risk for melanoma, and these changes are passed from one generation to the next.
The risk for melanoma increases as you get older. Overall, men have a higher rate of melanoma than women, but before age 50, the risk is higher for women.
Other risk factors:
- atypical or a large number of moles
- fair skin, freckling and light hair
- family history of melanoma
- personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers
- a weakened immune system
- xeroderma pigmentosum (a rare inherited condition)
Good for preventing
Knowing your own skin is the first step to early detection of skin cancer. Get in the habit of examining your skin so you become familiar with what’s normal for you. Check your skin once a month and talk with your health care provider promptly if you notice anything unusual.
Have your health care provider or dermatologist check your skin once every three years if you are 20-40 and once a year if you are over 40.
- Seek shade when possible.
- Wear protective clothing, including a hat, long sleeves and long pants.
- Use sunscreen, and make sure to apply it properly.
- Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
- Avoid tanning beds.
Good for treating
Your diagnosis and treatment will vary, depending on the type and location of the skin cancer, whether it has spread and your general health.
If you have an abnormal-looking mole, your health care provider may order a biopsy. During a biopsy, the mole or a sample of tissue is removed for testing under a microscope.
Pathology report. A pathology report shows what was learned from testing the tissue sample you had taken. It will provide information such as:
- Diagnosis - This will tell your health care provider if you have melanoma or not.
- Breslow’s depth - Describes the thickness of the melanoma measured in millimeters.
- Clark’s level - Describes how deep the melanoma has spread through the layers of skin.
- Mitotic rate - Describes how fast cancer cells are dividing and growing.
- Tumor regression - This describes an area on the skin where melanoma was but is no longer found. These cancer cells were destroyed by the immune system.
- Margin - This is the edge of the biopsy or tissue sample.
- A “negative” or “clean” margin means that no cancer cells were found at the edge of the tissue sample. In most cases, this means that all of the melanoma was removed.
- A “positive” margin means that cancer cells were found at the edge of the tissue sample. It’s possible that some of the melanoma was not removed,
Diagnostic imaging tests
- CT Scan
You and your health care provider will work together to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following:
- Surgery - The growth (mole) and some normal tissue around it are removed. Lymph nodes may also be removed to check for melanoma.
- Systemic therapy - This treatment affects your entire body. It uses medicines to help slow the growth of cancer cells or destroy them.
- Radiation therapy - This treatment uses high-energy radiation (X-rays) to shrink or destroy the cancer cells.
Source: Allina Health Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Allina Health Cancer Institute
First published: 6/12/2019
Last reviewed: 6/12/2019