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Melanoma FAQ

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a form of cancer that begins in melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that colors the skin, hair and eyes and forms moles. Melanoma is mainly a disease of the skin, but it also can occur in other pigmented tissue, such as in the eye, digestive tract and brain.

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer because of its tendency to spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body. There are an estimated 76,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year and melanoma accounts for about three out of every four skin cancer deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute.

What causes melanoma?

Exposure to sunlight and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) rays, such as indoor tanning beds, is believed to cause the great majority of melanomas. However, because melanoma can occur in all melanocytes throughout the body, even in areas never exposed to the sun, UV light cannot be the sole factor. A combination of family history, genetics and other environmental factors also likely play a role.

Melanoma is most common in men over the age of 50 (more common than colon, prostate and lung cancer). It is also the most common form of cancer for young adults between ages 25 and 29, and the second most common cancer in adolescents age 15 and older. Melanoma also is more common in sunny areas, such as Southern California and the southwestern United States. 

Are there other risk factors for melanoma?

Melanoma occurs more frequently in people who have fair skin and less pigment. Having darker skin lowers but does not eliminate the risk of developing melanoma. Other factors include:

  • Blond or red hair
  • Light-colored eyes
  • A tendency to burn or freckle easily
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight or other sources of ultraviolet light
  • Numerous or unusual moles (more than 50, those that are irregularly shaped or are mixed in color)
  • A history of one or more blistering sunburns as a child or teenager
  • A family history of melanoma

People who have had other types of skin cancer also are at increased risk of developing melanoma, and a previous diagnosis of melanoma increases the risk of a recurrence. In addition, people with weakened immune systems from treatments or from HIV/AIDS and other autoimmune disease are at greater risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers.

Is melanoma curable?

Melanoma is usually curable when detected in its early stages. Some melanomas grow slowly, others may progress quickly. It is important to regularly examine your skin every three or four months to spot any changes at the earliest opportunity.

How can I tell if a mole might be cancerous?

Know the "ABCD" warning signs for cancer:

  • “A” refers to moles that are asymmetrical (one side is shaped or sized differently than the other).
  • “B” is for borders. If the borders of a mole are irregular, jagged or rough, it may indicate cancer.
  • “C” is for color. If the mole is an unusual color or has multiple colors within it, it should be checked by a physician.
  • “D” is for diameter. Moles that are larger than a pencil eraser should be evaluated.

Other suspicious changes in a mole may include:

  • Scaliness
  • Itching
  • Spreading of pigment from the mole into the surrounding skin
  • Oozing or bleeding

We recommend checking your entire body every three to four months for moles or patches that exhibit these warning signs. You should also have a yearly skin exam by a trained dermatologist. 

What should I look for in a self-examination?

Examine your skin in a room with plenty of light, using a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror to help view hard-to-reach areas. Become familiar with the look and feel of any birthmarks, moles and other spots.

Inspect areas that are exposed to the sun: face, neck, ears, arms, legs, chest, back, sides, underarms and scalp (a relative or friend may need to help). Check hidden areas, including the genitals, between the buttocks, hands (including fingernails and palms) and feet (including soles, toenails and between the toes).

Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you spot any of the following:

  • A new growth that differs from your existing moles or marks
  • A red or darker color patch that is flaky and may be raised
  • A new flesh-colored bump that is firm to the touch
  • A mole that changes in color, texture, shape or size
  • A spot or growth that continues to itch, crust, scab or bleed
  • A sore that lasts for several weeks or reopens after healing

Keep a record of the dates and findings of your self-exams to help you and your doctor.

We recommend checking your entire body every three to four months for moles or patches that exhibit these warning signs. You should also have a yearly skin exam by a trained dermatologist. 

What happens if my doctor suspects melanoma?

Your doctor may perform a biopsy, removing all or part of the growth that looks abnormal and sending the sample to a pathologist for testing. At UC Irvine Health, we have skilled dermatopathologists who are experts at detecting melanomas and other skin cancers.

If melanoma is found, a procedure called sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy may be performed to determine whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes. A CT (computed tomography) scan or other types of imaging may also be performed to determine whether melanoma cells have spread elsewhere in the body.

How is melanoma treated?

The melanoma must be excised surgically along with enough healthy surrounding tissue to ensure that the entire carcinoma has been removed.

If melanoma cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes, those lymph nodes may also need to be removed, followed by interferon treatments to stimulate the immune system.

When melanoma has spread beyond the skin and nearby lymph nodes to other organs, treatment is more difficult and is usually directed at shrinking the tumor and improving symptoms. These may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy to boost the immune system
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Radiation treatments may be used to relieve pain or discomfort caused by cancer that has spread
Questions? Please contact the UC Irvine Health Melanoma Center at 714-456-8000.

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