Learn About Melanoma

What is Melanoma

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Like other cancers, melanomas start when a particular cell or group of cells in your body begins to grow in an uncontrolled and dangerous way so they can invade surrounding tissues and potentially spread to other parts of the body. This happens when the DNA in a cell mutates so an abnormal cancerous clone of cells are produced. Most melanomas begin in a part of the skin called the dermal-epidermal junction, which is located between the epidermis and the dermis of the skin. As melanomas grow, they produce more cancer cells and invade deeper into the skin; they can potentially then invade the local tissues and spread (metastasize) to other organs in the body. However, when melanomas are detected soon after they begin, the chances that the cancerous cells can be removed completely before metastasizing are very high. This means that a melanoma that is diagnosed in its early stages has a high chance of being completely cured.


Melanomas either start in a mole that is already present on your skin or can begin as a new spot on your skin. Melanomas may be only the size of a pinhead when they begin and grow larger and deeper with time.

Click here to see the “ABCDE” signs of melanomas.

Melanoma Facts and Statistics

Approximately one person dies of melanoma every hour in the U.S.

In 2019, over 192,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma. Of these, more than 92,000 will be diagnosed with invasive.

An estimated 7,230 Americans will die of melanoma in 2019.

Melanoma accounts for less than one percent of skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. The estimated 5-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 98 percent in the U.S. The survival rate falls to 62 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes, and 18 percent when the disease spreads to distant organs.
The estimated 5-year melanoma survival rate for blacks is only 69 percent, versus 93 percent for whites. Melanomas are often identified in more advanced stages in people of color, which may be because of a prevalent myth that people of color cannot get skin cancer.

Cancer Facts and Figures 2019. American Cancer Society

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Women aged 49 and under have a higher probability of developing melanoma than any other cancer except breast and thyroid cancers.
The vast majority of melanomas are caused by the sun. In fact, one UK study found that about 86 percent of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
Risk factors for all types of skin cancer include skin that burns easily; blond or red hair; a history of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns; tanning bed use; immune system-suppressing diseases or treatments; and a history of skin cancer.

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People of any age and any race can get melanoma, but some people are at higher risk. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you will get a melanoma. Risk factors for melanoma are:

Being a white male over the age of fifty
People in this demographic are at particularly high risk for getting and dying of melanoma. Among white males over 50, melanomas are most common on the back, although melanomas on the scalp (also common in this group) have a higher mortality rate, because they are usually diagnosed when they are thicker and deeper.

Having other family members who have had a melanoma
Melanomas often run in families. The more family members you have with melanoma, the higher your risk. Some of the genes that occur in people with familial melanoma have been identified and can be tested for, but many patients who have family members with melanoma have no identifiable gene problem.

Having atypical (dysplastic) nevi
Atypical (or “dysplastic”) moles (or “nevi”) are a common genetic condition. People with atypical nevi usually have many large moles with more than one color. The moles may start in childhood and increase in size and number through adolescence and early adulthood. If you have atypical moles and have family members with melanoma, you are at especially high risk for melanoma and should be followed regularly by a dermatologist. Also, get your family members checked.

Being born with a mole or moles
Being born with a mole called a nevomelanocytic congenital nevus or having neurocutaneous melanosis puts a person at increased risk for developing melanoma. Bigger moles pose a greater risk than smaller ones. Deciding if and when these moles should be biopsied and/or removed involves complex medical decisions. Parents should discuss these concerns with their child’s pediatrician and consider seeing a dermatologist who has special expertise in evaluating children with these lesions.

Physical traits
People with red or blond hair, light-colored eyes, and fair skin that burns easily are at higher risk for skin cancer of all types, including melanoma.

Ultraviolet light exposure
Sunlight is important to all living beings. Sun helps plants to grow and helps our bones to grow stronger. However, sunlight is also carcinogenic to human skin. There are three types of ultraviolet (UV) light: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC rays, which are the most harmful, are blocked by our ozone layer. Exposure to both UVB rays, which cause sunburns, and UVA rays, which cause tanning, increases your chance of getting skin cancer. The more you tan and burn, the greater your chances of getting skin cancer

Melanoma is preventable and can be caught early if you watch for the signs.
Melanomas usually have one or more of these ABCDE’s:

One half of the mole is unlike the other half.


The border of the mole is irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined.

The mole is varied from area to another. There may be shades of tan and brown and black and sometimes even white, red or blue.

The diameter of the mole is larger than 6 mm (as a rule), which is the same diameter of a pencil eraser.

Ordinary moles do not change over time. A mole that changes in size, shape, color, or texture is a warning sign as is a mole that tingles, itches, burns, bleeds, oozes, or feels strange. Another warning sign for melanoma is a sore that does not heal. ANY changes to ANY moles in ANY way should be evaluated by a doctor immediately!

Although melanoma can be life-threatening, there’s good news: the vast majority of melanomas can be cured with early detection.

Here’s what you need to stay safe:

  1. Learn how to conduct a monthly self skin exam
  2. Know the ABCDE’s of Melanoma
  3. Don’t wonder and worry about an annoying mole. It’s always best to err on the side of caution and make a dermatology appointment to get it checked.

Here are some tips to get help quickly from your medical professionals:

  • Use your primary care doctor or nurse practitioner to advocate for an urgent problem. They have well established specialist contacts and a quick phone call from them can almost always find an appointment within the week.
  • Call the specialist’s office in the early morning (i.e. 9-10 a.m.) to ask if there have been any cancellations for that day. Be flexible and willing to change your schedule.
  • Realize that more than 90% of the time, the annoying mole you’re worrying about is not life-threatening, and reassurance is all that is needed.
  • Discuss problems with access with your dermatologist directly. Leaving a concerned message will result in a return phone call and some telephone triage.
  • If you are a high-risk patient and don’t have a dermatologist, be proactive and make an appointment to start yearly screenings.


Ocular melanoma

Ocular melanoma (melanoma in or around the eye) is a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce pigment. Pigment is the substance that gives color to your skin, hair and eyes. Just as you can develop melanoma on your skin, you can also develop it inside your eye or on your conjunctiva. Although it is the most common eye cancer in adults, ocular melanoma is very rare.

Ocular melanomas usually begin in the middle of the three layers of your eye. The outer layer of your eye is the sclera. The innermost layer is the retina. The middle layer between the sclera and retina is called the uvea.

Rarely, eye melanoma can also occur on the conjunctiva.

Because most eye melanomas form in the part of the eye you can’t see when looking in a mirror, they can be difficult to detect. Also, eye melanoma typically doesn’t cause early signs or symptoms. That’s why it is so important to see your ophthalmologist regularly.

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Acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM)

Acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) is a specific type of melanoma that appears on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, or under the nails. Melanocytes contain your skin color (known as melanin or pigment). In this type of melanoma, the word “acral” refers to the occurrence of the melanoma on the palms or soles.

Rarely, eye melanoma can also occur on the conjunctiva.

Because most eye melanomas form in the part of the eye you can’t see when looking in a mirror, they can be difficult to detect. Also, eye melanoma typically doesn’t cause early signs or symptoms. That’s why it is so important to see your ophthalmologist regularly.