• Overview
    Skin cancer screening: If you notice a mole that differs from others or one that changes, bleeds, or itches, see a dermatologist.

    Melanoma: Overview

    Also called malignant melanoma

    Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Anyone can get melanoma. When found early and treated, the cure rate is nearly 100%. Allowed to grow, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma can spread quickly. When melanoma spreads, it can be deadly.

    Dermatologists believe that the number of deaths from melanoma would be much lower if people:

    • Knew the warning signs of melanoma.
    • Learned how to examine their skin for signs of skin cancer.
    • Took the time to examine their skin.

    Read more: I've been diagnosed with melanoma! Now what?


    It’s important to take time to look at the moles on your skin because this is a good way to find melanoma early. When checking your skin you should look for the ABCDEs of melanoma.

    Image property of the American Academy of Dermatology.

  • Symptoms

    Melanoma: Signs and symptoms

    Anyone can get melanoma. It’s important to take time to look at the moles on your skin because this is a good way to find melanoma early. When checking your skin, you should look for the ABCDEs of melanoma.

    ABCDEs of melanoma


    IMPORTANT: If you see a mole or new spot on your skin that has any of the ABCDEs, immediately make an appointment to see a dermatologist.

    Signs of melanoma

    The most common early signs (what you see) of melanoma are:

    • Growing mole on your skin.
    • Unusual looking mole on your skin or a mole that does not look like any other mole on your skin (the ugly duckling).
    • Non-uniform mole (has an odd shape, uneven or uncertain border, different colors).

    Symptoms of melanoma

    In the early stages, melanoma may not cause any symptoms (what you feel). But sometimes melanoma will:

    • Itch.
    • Bleed.
    • Feel painful.

    Many melanomas have these signs and symptoms, but not all. There are different types of melanoma. One type can first appear as a brown or black streak underneath a fingernail or toenail. Melanoma also can look like a bruise that just won’t heal.

    Read more: I've been diagnosed with melanoma! Now what?

    Image property of the American Academy of Dermatology.

  • Causes
    Research shows that indoor tanning increases a person's melanoma risk by 59%. The risk also may increase if you had breast or thyroid cancer.

    Melanoma: Who gets and causes

    Who gets melanoma?

    Anyone can get melanoma. Most people who get it have light skin, but people who have brown and black skin also get melanoma.




    Some people have a higher risk of getting melanoma. These people have the following traits:


    • Fair skin (The risk is higher if the person also has red or blond hair and blue or green eyes).
    • Sun-sensitive skin (rarely tans or burns easily).
    • 50-plus moles, large moles, or unusual-looking moles.

    If you have had bad sunburns or spent time tanning (sun, tanning beds, or sun lamps), you also have a higher risk of getting melanoma.

    Family/medical history

    • Melanoma runs in the family (parent, child, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle had melanoma).
    • You had another skin cancer, but most especially another melanoma.
    • A weakened immune system.

    More people getting melanoma

    Fewer people are getting most types of cancer. Melanoma is different. More people are getting melanoma. Many are white men who are 50 years or older. More young people also are getting melanoma. Melanoma is now the most common cancer among people 25-29 years old. Even teenagers are getting melanoma.

    What causes melanoma?

    Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major contributor in most cases. We get UV radiation from the sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps. Heredity also plays a role. Research shows that if a close blood relative (parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle) had melanoma, a person has a much greater risk of getting melanoma.

    Read more: I've been diagnosed with melanoma! Now what?

  • Treatment

    Melanoma: Diagnosis and treatment

    How do dermatologists diagnose melanoma?

    To diagnose melanoma, a dermatologist begins by looking at the patient’s skin. A dermatologist will carefully examine moles and other suspicious spots. To get a better look, a dermatologist may use a device called a dermoscope. The device shines light on the skin. It magnifies the skin. This helps the dermatologist to see pigment and structures in the skin.

    The dermatologist also may feel the patient’s lymph nodes. Many people call these lymph glands.

    If the dermatologist finds a mole or other spot that looks like melanoma, the dermatologist will remove it (or part of it). The removed skin will be sent to a lab. Your dermatologist may call this a biopsy. Melanoma cannot be diagnosed without a biopsy.

    This biopsy is quick, safe, and easy for a dermatologist to perform. This type of biopsy should not cause anxiety. The discomfort and risks are minimal.

    If the biopsy report says that the patient has melanoma, the report also may tell the stage of the melanoma. Stage tells the doctor how deeply the cancer has grown into the skin.

    The melanoma stages are:

    Stage Description
    Stage 0
    (in situ)

    Melanoma is confined to the epidermis (top layer of skin).

    Stage I Melanoma is confined to the skin, but has grown thicker. It can be as thick as 1.0 millimeter. In stage IA, the skin covering the melanoma remains intact. In stage IB, the skin covering the melanoma has broken open (ulcerated).

    Stage II Melanoma has grown thicker. The thickness ranges from 1.01 millimeters to greater than 4.0 millimeters. The skin covering the melanoma may have broken open (ulcerated). While thick, the cancer has not spread.

    Stage III Melanoma has spread to either: 1) one or more nearby lymph node (often called lymph gland) or 2) nearby skin.
    Stage IV Melanoma has spread to an internal organ, lymph nodes further from the original melanoma, or is found on the skin far from the orignal melanoma.

    Sometimes the patient needs another type of biopsy. A type of surgery called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) may be recommended to stage the melanoma. When melanoma spreads, it often goes to the closest lymph nodes first. A SLNB tells doctors whether the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Other tests that a patient may need include x-rays, blood work, and a CT scan.

    Read more: I've been diagnosed with melanoma! Now what?

    How do dermatologists treat melanoma?

    The type of treatment a patient receives depends on the following:

    • How deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin.
    • Whether the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body.
    • The patient’s health.

    The following describes treatment used for melanoma.

    Surgery: When treating melanoma, doctors want to remove all of the cancer. When the cancer has not spread, it is often possible for a dermatologist to remove the melanoma during an office visit. The patient often remains awake during the surgical procedures described below. These procedures are used to remove skin cancer:

    • Excision: To perform this, the dermatologist numbs the skin. Then, the dermatologist surgically cuts out the melanoma and some of the normal-looking skin around the melanoma. This normal-looking skin is called a margin. There are different types of excision. Most of the time, this can be performed in a dermatologist’s office.

    • Mohs surgery: A dermatologist who has completed additional medical training in Mohs surgery performs this procedure. Once a dermatologist completes this training, the dermatologist is called a Mohs surgeon.

      Mohs surgery begins with the Mohs surgeon removing the visible part of the melanoma. Next, the surgeon begins removing the cancer cells. Cancer cells are not visible to the naked eye, so the surgeon removes skin that may contain cancer cells one layer at a time. After removing a layer, it is prepped so that the surgeon can examine it under a microscope and look for cancer cells. This layer-by-layer approach continues until the surgeon no longer finds cancer cells. In most cases, Mohs surgery can be completed within a day or less. Mohs has a high cure rate.

    When caught early, removing the melanoma by excision or Mohs may be all the treatment a patient needs. In its earliest stage, melanoma grows in the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Your dermatologist may refer to this as melanoma in situ or stage 0. In this stage, the cure rate with surgical removal is nearly 100%.

    When melanoma grows deeper into the skin or spreads, treatment becomes more complex. It may begin with one of the surgeries described above. A patient may need more treatment. Other treatments for melanoma include:

    • Lymphadenectomy: Surgery to remove lymph nodes.
    • Immunotherapy: Treatment that helps the patient’s immune system fight the cancer.
    • Targeted therapy: Drugs that can temporarily shrink the cancer; however, some patients appear to be fully cured. 
    • Chemotherapy: Medicine that kills the cancer cells (and some normal cells).
    • Radiation therapy: X-rays that kill the cancer cells (and some normal cells).

    Other treatment that may be recommended includes:

    • Clinical trial: A clinical trial studies a medicine or other treatment. A doctor may recommend a clinical trial when the treatment being studied may help a patient. Being part of a medical research study has risks and benefits.

      Before joining a clinical trial, patients should discuss the possible risks and benefits with their doctor. The decision to join in a clinical trial rests entirely with the patient.

    • Adoptive T-cell therapy: This treatment uses the patient's immune system to fight the cancer. Instead of receiving medicine, the patient has blood drawn. The blood is sent to a lab so that the T cells (cells in our body that help us fight cancers and infections) can be removed. These T cells are then placed in a culture so that they can multiply. 

      Once the T cells are ready, they are injected back into the patient. Some patients with advanced melanoma have had long-lasting remission. This therapy, however, is not widely available. 

    • Palliative care: This care can relieve symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. It does not treat the cancer. Many patients receive palliative care, not just patients with late-stage cancer.

      When melanoma spreads, palliative care can help control the pain and other symptoms. Radiation therapy is a type of palliative care for stage IV (has spread) melanoma. It can ease pain and other symptoms.


    This depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin. If the melanoma is properly treated when it is in the top layer of skin, the cure rate is nearly 100%. If the melanoma has grown deeper into the skin or spread, the patient may die.

  • Tips

    Melanoma: Tips for managing

    Finding melanoma

    Finding melanoma early is important. When melanoma is found early and treated, it is almost 100% curable. This is true even if you have had melanoma. If melanoma spreads, it can be deadly.

    Here is what you can do to find melanoma early:

    • Check your skin for signs of skin cancer. To help people find melanoma early, the American Academy of Dermatology created the body mole map, which:

      • Illustrates how to examine your skin.
      • Shows you what to look for (ABCDEs of melanoma).
      • Gives you a place to write down where your moles appear on your body.

      When examining your skin, be sure to check your scalp, feet, nails, and genital area. Melanoma can appear on parts of the body that people do not think to check.

      And check your scalp, palms, soles, fingernails, and toenails. Melanoma can appear under a nail. Beneath a nail, the most common early warning sign of melanoma  is a brown- to black-colored nail streak.

      Another early warning sign is a spot that looks like a bruise. The bruise may fade and then come back.

    • Make an appointment to see a dermatologist. If you find a mole or growth on your skin that is growing, unusual, bleeding or not like the rest, you should see a dermatologist.

    • Get a free skin cancer screening. The American Academy of Dermatology offers free skin cancer screenings throughout the United States. Most free screenings happen in the spring.

      If you do not find a screening in your area, you can sign up to receive an email that lets you know when the next free screening will take place in your area.

    If you have had melanoma

    You should know that you have a higher (5 times higher) risk of getting another melanoma. But, there is good news. Finding melanoma early still leads to a high cure rate. You should:

    • Examine your skin for signs of skin cancer.
    • Keep all appointments for follow-up exams. The sooner melanoma or another skin cancer is found, the better the outcome. During follow-up exams, the doctor may do more than look at your skin. You may need to see an eye doctor. Melanoma can develop in the eye. You may need blood work or an x-ray.
    • Read more: I've been diagnosed with melanoma! Now what?

    Preventing skin cancer

    The following can help everyone reduce their risk of getting skin cancer:

    • If you tan, stop. Tanning outdoors, using tanning beds, and sitting under sun lamps are not safe. Research shows indoor tanning increases a person's melanoma risk by 75%.

      And forget about getting a base tan before going on a tropical vacation. A base tan will not protect you. It just increases your risk for getting skin cancer.

    • Spend time outdoors when the sun is less intense. Before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m., the sun’s rays are less intense.

    • Wear sunscreen every day. Even on cloudy, rainy, and snowy days, you need to wear sunscreen. Here's what to look for in a sunscreen:

      • A Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30.
      • UVA and UVB protection.

    • Wear sunglasses that have UV protection. Melanoma can develop in the eyes.

    How to apply sunscreen

    • Apply at least 20 minutes before you go outside.
    • Put sunscreen on all skin that will not be covered by clothing.
    • If you spend time outside, reapply the sunscreen every 2 hours.

    Support groups:

    If you are living with melanoma, you may want to join a support group:

    Related resources:

  • Treatment news

    Melanoma: Treatment news

    Treatment for advanced melanoma continues to improve

    March 2015:
    Treatment for advanced melanoma is changing rapidly. Breakthroughs in medical research are giving hope to patients who have melanoma that has spread.

    Fueling this change is a type of treatment called targeted therapy. This therapy uses new drugs that can temporarily shrink the cancer. 

    Breakthroughs in another type of treatment called immunotherapy, which helps the patient’s immune system fight cancer, also are helping some patients live longer.

    The following explains how these new drugs, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2011 and 2014, are helping patients. All have been approved to treat adults (18 years or older) who have melanoma that has spread.

    Help the patient’s immune system fight the cancer

    Ipilimumab (Yervoy®), which was FDA approved in 2011, is helping some people with advanced melanoma live longer. 

    How ipilimumab works: This drug helps the patient’s immune system to recognize, target, and attack cancer cells. Healthy cells are left alone.

    Patient responses to ipilimumab: In studies, patients had the following response:

    • This drug shrank tumors for about 11% of patients with advanced melanoma. 
    • Patients who respond often have a long-lasting response.
    • In patients who survive 7 years, the likelihood of a long-lasting response increases. No deaths have been reported in patients who live for 7 years after the first treatment.
    • It has been effective in patients when melanoma spreads to the brain. In 18% of these patients, the tumor(s) cleared, shrank, or did not progress.

    Encouraging news: Giving patients ipilimumab and another drug that boosts the immune system can increase a patient’s response. In clinical trials, the patients receiving such combinations live longer and have fewer toxic side effects than patients who receive only ipilimumab. 

    How to take ipilimumab: Patients receive IV drips at a hospital or cancer treatment center. 

    Note: A medical oncologist (doctor who specializes in treating cancer) usually treats patients when melanoma spreads. This doctor can tell you how often you would take this drug and possible side effects. 

    Pegylated interferon: Another advance in immunotherapy is the FDA approval of pegylated (or peg) interferon to treat melanoma that has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Peg-interferon causes fewer side effects than interferon given in the past. This may help patients take the drug for a longer time. The recommended treatment period is 5 years.

    Target therapy can temporarily stop cancer from spreading

    Cancer begins when changes take place within our genes. Your doctor may call these changes “gene mutations.” 

    Some people with melanoma have changes to a specific gene called BRAF. Doctors often refer to this change as a “BRAF gene mutation.”

    Researchers have developed drugs that can target a BRAF gene mutation. The following drugs are FDA approved to treat melanoma driven by a BRAF gene mutation:

    • Vemurafenib (Zelboraf®) approved in 2011
    • Dabrafenib (Tafinlar®) approved in 2013
    • Trametinib (Mekinist®) approved in 2013 
    • Dabrafenib + trametinib, approved 2014 

    How these drugs works: If a patient has a certain BRAF gene mutation, these drugs can temporarily block the specific pathway that melanoma uses to grow. Because dabrafenib and trametinib block different parts of the same pathway, they can be more effective when taken together. 

    Patient must have BRAF gene mutation: For a patient to receive this type of targeted therapy, the melanoma tumor must have a specific mutation in the BRAF gene. A tumor biopsy, which involves removing some of the melanoma and testing it, can tell your doctor whether you have a BRAF gene mutation.

    Patient responses to these drugs: These drugs can shrink melanoma tumors and slow the progression of melanoma. In clinical trials, patients had the following response rates:

    • Dabrafenib: 54% have a positive response (tumors shrink or clear completely), which lasts about 5.6 months before the melanoma progresses. 
    • Trametinib: When a patient has a positive response, it lasts about 4.8 months before the melanoma progresses.
    • Dabrafenib + trametinib: 76% of patients have a positive response, which lasts about 9.4 months. 
    • Vemurafenib: More than half the patients had a positive response, which lasted about 6.7 months, and 6% of patients achieved a complete response (no sign of melanoma).

    While these drugs can be effective, they tend to stop working in time. When the drug stops working, the melanoma can progress. At that time, other treatment options can be considered.

    How to take these drugs: All of these drugs are pills. 

    Note: A medical oncologist usually prescribes the pills and monitors patients. 

    Since some of the side effects can occur in the skin, patients taking one of these drugs usually see a dermatologist for one year. 

    Patients taking vemurafenib: Patients taking this drug must protect their skin from the sun because vemurafenib causes the skin to become extremely sensitive to sunlight. Spending just 5 minutes outdoors in the sun can cause sunburn. Patients also burn when they are outdoors in the shade.

    Drugs that offer hope when other treatments fail 

    In 2014, the FDA approved two drugs that can be considered when other treatments fail or stop working. Both nivolumab (Opdivo®) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) are FDA approved for patients who have:

    • Tried the drug ipilimumab 
    • A BRAF gene mutation 

    Because some patients experience serious side effects, the FDA approved these drugs only for patients who have tried other treatment first. 

    How nivolumab and pembrolizumab work: Like ipilimumab, these drugs enable the body’s immune system to attack the melanoma cells.

    Research breakthroughs occurring at a rapid pace

    Other treatments for advanced melanoma are being studied in clinical trials. More therapies are expected to be approved by the FDA.

    More information about the newer FDA-approved therapies

    If you are interested in exploring treatment options, you should ask your doctor which treatment might be a good fit for you.

    Researchers continue to study the drugs discussed in this article. You can learn more about these drugs and look for clinical trials (run to improve drugs) that are accepting patients with advanced melanoma by clicking on the following pages:


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    Fox MC, Lao CD, et al. “Management options for metastatic melanoma in the era of novel therapies: a primer for the practicing dermatologist: part II: Management of stage IV disease.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013 Jan;68(1):13.e1-13e12.

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