Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Even so, if diagnosed and removed while it is still thin and limited to the outermost skin layer, it is almost 100% curable. Once the cancer advances and metastasizes (spreads) to other parts of the body, it is hard to treat and can be deadly. During the past 10 years the number of cases of melanoma has increased more rapidly than that of any other cancer. Over 51,000 new cases are reported to the American Cancer Society each year, and it is probable that a great many more occur and are not reported.

Who Gets It

  • People with lots of moles, and those who have some large moles, have an increased risk for melanoma.
  • People with fair skin, freckling, light hair or blue eyes have a higher risk of melanoma. But anyone can get melanoma.
  • Around 10% of people with melanoma have a close relative (mother father, brother, sister, child) with the disease. A strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer could mean that certain gene changes (mutations) are present. Men with this gene change have a higher risk of melanoma.

The Origin of Melanoma

Melanoma is a malignant tumor that originates in melanocytes, the cells which produce the pigment melanin that colors our skin, hair, and eyes and is heavily concentrated in most moles. The majority of melanomas, therefore, are black or brown. However, melanomas occasionally stop producing pigment. When that happens, the melanomas may no longer be dark, but are skin-colored, pink, red, or purple.

Some Are More Dangerous

A physician will tell you whether the melanoma is early or advanced by describing it as either in situ or invasive. "In situ" is Latin and means "in one site" or "localized." Melanomas in situ occupy only the uppermost part of the epidermis, the top layers of the skin.

Invasive melanomas are the more serious, as they have penetrated more deeply into the skin and may have travelled from the original tumor through the body.

Malignant melanomas are usually small brown-black or larger multicolored patches, plaques or nodules with irregular outline. They may crust on the surface or bleed. Many of them may arise in pre-existing moles.


The ABCD Rule for Early Detection of Melanoma

Assymetry, Border, Color, DiameterAlmost everyone has moles. The vast majority of moles are perfectly harmless. A change in a mole's appearance is a sign that you should see your doctor. Here's the simple ABCD rule to help you remember the important signs of melanoma and other skin cancers:

  • A is for ASYMMETRY: One-half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • B is for BORDER: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • C is for COLOR:The color is not the same all over, but may have differing shades of brown or black, sometimes with patches of red, white, or blue.
  • D is for DIAMETER: The area is larger than 6 millimeters (about ¼ inch -- the size of a pencil eraser) or is growing larger.

Important Signs of Melanoma

Other important signs of melanoma include changes in size, shape, or color of a mole or the appearance of a new spot. Some melanomas do not fit the ABCD rule described above, so it is particularly important for you to be aware of changes in skin lesions or a new skin lesion.

Other warning signs are:

  • A sore that does not heal
  • A new growth
  • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot to surrounding skin
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border
  • Change in sensation - itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • Change in the surface of a mole - scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a bump or nodule