Melanoma is a cancer that usually starts on the skin, either in a mole or normal-looking skin.
The skin cells
Melanoma gets its name from the skin cells in which it develops. These are known as melanocytes. They are responsible for producing the melanin which gives your skin its colour: the more melanin the cells make, the darker your skin will be. A mole is a group of these cells that make a lot of melanin. It looks like a dark patch on your skin.
Most melanomas develop on the skin of the legs, chest or back, but they can occur all over your body.
The three most common types of melanomas are:
- Superficial spreading melanoma: this is a type of melanoma that, at first, tends to increase in size, rather than growing downwards. There is little risk of it spreading to other parts of the body until it grows down into the deeper layers of your skin.
- Nodular melanoma: this type of melanoma is often found on the neck or back and tends to grow downwards quickly if not removed.
- Lentigo maligna melanoma: this is a slow-growing melanoma that commonly develops on the face.
There are a number of other rarer types of melanoma. Talk to your specialist for information about your particular type.
Melanoma can affect anyone at any age. However, it is one of the main types of cancer affecting young women aged between 15 and 24.
Being exposed to ultraviolet light – either from the sun or sunbeds – can increase your risk of melanoma. You are also more at risk if you have particularly fair skin or a lot of moles, or if a close relative has had melanoma.
The first sign of melanoma is usually a mole that increases in size, or changes shape or colour. It may become itchy or painful, look inflamed or start bleeding. If you have a mole that does any of these things, you should get it checked by a doctor.
If your doctor thinks that your mole may be cancerous, you will be referred to a specialist at the hospital. There, the whole mole will be removed and examined under a microscope.
The specialist will check how deep the melanoma has grown because deeper melanomas could have spread to elsewhere in the body. If you are found to have a deep melanoma, you may need to have other tests to find out whether the melanoma has spread.
If the mole is found to contain cancer or pre-cancer cells, the specialists will want to ensure that it has been removed completely. If it hasn’t, you might need another operation called a ‘wide local excision’ to remove all the abnormal cells. For early melanomas, you may not need any further treatment.
If your melanoma has spread to other parts of your body, you may need further surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Your specialist will be able to talk you through your individual treatment plan.
If you need chemotherapy or radiotherapy for treatment of advanced melanoma, you may experience a number of related side-effects. See our side-effects section for more information about these.
Once you have had a melanoma, your risk of having another one is higher than average. You should no longer sunbathe or use sun beds to help decrease this risk.
Follow up appointments
You should continue to see your specialist regularly for follow up appointments for a number of months after your treatment. Between these appointments, it is important to get in touch with your specialist immediately if you notice:
- Changes in other moles
- Dark, mole-like spots appearing near where your mole was removed
- Enlarged lymph glands near where your mole was removed.
Updated December 2014, next review planned 2017.