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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on May 21, 2021.

Melanoma symptoms

Because many melanomas develop on the skin where they’re visible, there’s a good chance of detecting them early. Regular examination of the skin for new or unusual growths, or changes in existing moles, is critical. If you find anything suspicious, you should discuss it with your primary care physician, a dermatologist (skin doctor) or a health-care professional qualified to diagnose melanoma.

Most moles are harmless. A normal mole is generally colored evenly (brown, black or tan) and is smaller than 6 mm in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser). They may be flat or raised and generally don’t change over time.

Melanoma accounts for about 1 percent of all skin cancers, but it’s responsible for most deaths from skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Early warning signs of melanoma

The key to detecting melanoma early is to know what to look for and where to look for it. This isn’t always easy, as melanoma can be a master of disguise. It may look like an age spot, a bruise, a sore, a cyst, a scar or a dark line beneath your nail. You may not feel a melanoma, but there are times that it may itch, hurt or bleed.

The ABCDE method may help you determine whether an abnormal skin growth may be melanoma:

  • A is for asymmetry: Does the mark look different on each half?
  • B is for border: Are the edges jagged or irregular?
  • C is for color: Is your lesion uneven in color with specks of black, brown and tan?
  • D is for diameter: Is your lesion getting larger?
  • E is for evolving or elevation: Has your lesion changed in size, shape or texture over the past few weeks or months?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, or even maybe, see a dermatologist for a proper evaluation. The only way to be sure whether a mole is melanoma is to visit a doctor.

Other melanoma warning signs may include:

  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Pigment, redness or swelling that spreads outside the border of a spot to the surrounding skin
  • Itchiness, tenderness or pain
  • Changes in texture, or scales, oozing or bleeding from an existing mole
  • Blurry vision or partial loss of sight, or dark spots in the iris

Types of melanoma

More than 90 percent of melanomas are thought to be caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the types of UV rays, the sun’s UVB rays in particular stimulate skin cells known as melanocytes to produce melanin. This may cause a sunburn or tan and increase your risk for developing cancer-causing mutations in the cell’s genetic material.

Melanoma may be found anywhere on the skin, but it’s most likely to develop on sun-exposed areas, namely the chest and back in men and the legs in women. The neck and face are also common sites for melanoma.

If you have a darker skin type, you may be more likely to develop melanoma on your hands, the soles of your feet or under your nails. This is known as acral lentiginous melanoma and isn’t caused by UV damage from the sun. It may differ in appearance from other types of melanoma.

Signs of acral lentiginous melanoma may include:

  • A new line under your toenail or fingernail
  • A streak that’s damaged the nail
  • A changing spot in or attached to a mole
  • A raised, thickened patch of skin on the sole of your foot or palm

Melanoma may also develop in the eyes (intraocular melanoma), or in the mouth, genitals or anal area (mucosal melanoma).

Next steps

The doctor will biopsy a mole if it looks suspicious, and the cells will be sent to a lab for analysis. If it’s melanoma, the patient may require surgery to remove the mole. If it has started to spread to other areas, chemotherapy and radiation, biologic and targeted therapies may also be recommended.