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 the skin its colour: the more melanin the cells make, the darker the skin will be. A mole is a group of these cells that make a lot of melanin. It looks like a dark patch on the skin.
Most melanomas develop on the skin of the legs, chest or back, but they can occur all over the 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 the 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 child's 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 the risk of melanoma. Your child is also more at risk if they 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 your child has a mole that does any of these things, it should be checked by a doctor.
If the doctor thinks that your child's mole may be cancerous, they 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 your child's body. If your child is found to have a deep melanoma, they 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, your child might need another operation called a ‘wide local excision’ to remove all the abnormal cells. For early melanomas, your child may not need any further treatment.
If the melanoma has spread to other parts of your child's body, they may need further surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Your specialist will be able to talk you through your child's individual treatment plan.
If your child needs chemotherapy or radiotherapy for treatment of advanced melanoma, they may experience a number of related side effects.
See our side effects section for more information about these.
Once your child has had a melanoma, their risk of having another one is higher than average. They should no longer sunbathe or use sunbeds to help decrease this risk.
Your child should continue to see their specialist regularly for follow-up appointments for a number of months after 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 child's mole was removed
- Enlarged lymph glands near where your child's mole was removed.
- Read about the different treatments for cancer
- Prepare for life on the ward with our practical tips for hospital stays
- Parents tell us it's hard talking to their child about cancer and treatment. Here are our tips and tools on how to make it easier
Updated November 2017, next review due 2019.