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Melanoma

About melanoma

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, and the number of new cases has risen significantly since the early 1990s.

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 96,480 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2019. Melanoma is less common than some other types of skin cancer, but it’s more likely to grow and spread.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma develops when pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes mutate. Although most melanocytes are found in the skin, some occur in the eyes and other parts of the body. Though the exact cause of melanoma isn’t always clear, the primary risk factor is exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. People who have had frequent sunburns, especially as children, have an increased risk.

Learn more about risk factors for melanoma

Types of melanoma

The most common type of melanoma is cutaneous, which develops on the skin. While most melanomas develop on skin exposed to the sun, the disease may also be found in areas not exposed, such as the groin or the bottoms of the feet.

Other types of melanoma include:

  • Superficial spreading melanoma
  • Nodular melanoma
  • Acral-lentiginous melanoma
  • Lentigo maligna melanoma
  • Amelanotic and desmoplastic melanomas
  • Ocular melanoma

Melanoma that has spread to distant organs is called metastatic melanoma. The disease most often spreads to the lungs, liver, bone and/or brain.

Learn more about melanoma types

Melanoma symptoms

Most melanomas develop on the skin, where they may be detected early. Regular skin examinations, either self-exams or those performed by a doctor, can help spot suspicious moles or changes in the skin that may be early signs of melanoma.

Other symptoms include:

  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Redness, swelling or tender skin
  • Oozing or bleeding from a mole
  • Dark spots in the eyes, loss of sight or blurry vision

Learn more about symptoms of melanoma

Diagnosing melanoma

Diagnosing melanoma begins with a visual examination. If a suspicious mole is found, a doctor may remove it and send a sample to the laboratory to determine if it is melanoma, some other form skin cancer or a benign growth. If melanoma is found, more extensive surgery may be required to completely remove the tumor and surrounding tissue. Further examinations may be used to determine if the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs.

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for melanoma

Treating melanoma

Surgery is the primary treatment for localized melanoma and may be an option if the disease has spread and formed tumors in distant organs. Surgeries to treat melanoma may include:

Excision to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue

Reconstructive surgery to reduce scarring or disfigurement, especially if the cancer is found on the face or other exposed areas

Lymph node removal to determine if the cancer has spread into the lymph system

Surgery for metastatic melanoma to remove melanoma tumors that have formed in the liver, lungs, brain or other organs

Other treatments for melanoma include:

Learn more about melanoma treatments

Next topic: What are the risk factors for melanoma?