Key Points about Melanoma

  • You can reduce your risk of developing melanoma by using sunscreen regularly.
  • Not using indoor sunlamps and tanning beds is one of the best ways to prevent melanoma.
  • Melanoma is a skin cancer that can spread early and quickly.
  • Treatment for melanoma typically involves surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.


Skin cancer is cancer that begins in the cells of the skin. Although less common than other types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most serious type, and it begins in the cells that produce melanin. Melanin gives your skin its color. It is important that you know the early warning signs of melanoma so that a diagnosis and treatment occur quickly.

Melanoma causes 

Melanoma is caused by a mutation (change) to the DNA of the cells of the skin that produce melanin. These cells are called melanocytes. There are several major causes for melanoma, including ultraviolet rays that damage DNA and genetics.

Melanoma risk factors

Melanoma can affect anyone. The following factors may increase your risk for developing melanoma:

  • Excessive ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from sunlight or tanning beds
  • Having a family history of melanoma
  • Having a history of sunburn
  • Having a weakened immune system due to a health condition or situation like an organ transplant
  • Having fair skin that burns easily, especially those with blond or red hair
  • Having more than 50 ordinary moles on your body or having irregular moles or large moles
  • Living closer to the equator or living at a higher elevation

Melanoma symptoms

Signs and symptoms of melanoma can include:

  • A change to an existing mole, such as a change in size or shape
  • A mole that looks different than your other moles
  • A new area of color on your skin that is an abnormal size and multiple shades in color
  • Melanoma may have a border that is uneven, blurred or notched
  • Melanomas may have the ABCD signs: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter
  • Regular moles are often less than one-fourth of an inch in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser). Melanomas are usually larger, but some are small

Melanoma diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors. A full body skin check can help determine whether existing moles are suspicious. 
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the suspicious area of skin. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan to help determine if the cancer has spread beyond your skin. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed pictures of the inside of your body. 
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan - your doctor may use this type of imaging test to help determine if the cancer has spread. A PET scan uses a radioactive substance to provide information about the activity of potentially cancerous cells.

Melanoma treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your melanoma and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery - if the melanoma is small and early-stage, your doctor will likely recommend a surgical procedure to remove it. If the cancer has not spread beyond this area, surgical removal of the melanoma itself may be the only treatment needed. If the melanoma has spread into nearby lymph nodes, your doctor may need to also remove those.
  • Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered orally (a pill taken by mouth) or an intravenous, or IV, liquid (injected into a vein). You may need to undergo chemotherapy after surgery so that your doctor can destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically or if the cancer has spread beyond the skin.
  • Radiation therapy - this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically or if the cancer has spread beyond the skin.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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