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Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine

Fact sheet

What is melanoma?
How common is melanoma?
Who is at risk for getting melanoma?
How do you prevent melanoma?
What is the screening test?
What are the symptoms of melanoma?
Where can I get more information?

What is melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It's the least common, but also the most dangerous. It begins in skin cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes are special cells that normally make pigment (coloring) in the skin. Sometime they form groups of cells called moles. Moles are skin growths that are usually dark and can be raised. Normal moles are not cancer and are not dangerous. However, when melanocytes become abnormal and grow out of control, they can become melanoma.

Melanoma accounts for 4% of all skin cancer. The two most common types of skin cancer are called basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. They are less dangerous than melanoma because they are highly curable.

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How common is melanoma?
In the United States, over 55,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year, and over a million people are diagnosed with other types of skin cancer. To compare this with other cancers, click here.

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Who is at risk of getting melanoma?
Anyone can get melanoma. The risk goes up with age, and people with a family history of melanoma have a higher risk. People of all races and ethnicities can get melanoma, but individuals with light-colored hair, eyes and skin have a higher risk.

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How do you prevent melanoma?
  • Protect your skin from the sun.
  • Be sure to protect the kids in your life as well.
Kids need extra protection from the sun because their skin is more likely to burn. Be an example for them to follow. Click here for a list of things that affect melanoma risk.

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What is the screening test?
There is no good screening test for melanoma. But you can check your skin for any unusual changes. It is especially important to be aware of any new moles (growths that are usually dark and can be raised) or changes in a mole you've had for a long time. If you're concerned about skin changes or melanoma, talk to a doctor about your risk.

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What are the symptoms of skin cancer?
The main symptom of melanoma is an unusual mole. Signs of an unusual mole are:
  • It changes in size, shape, or color
  • Half of the mole does not look like the other half
  • The edges of the mole are uneven, ragged, or notched
  • The mole is not evenly colored.
  • The mole has different shades of tan, brown, or black and may have patches of red, blue, or white
  • The mole is wider than a quarter of an inch – about the width of a pencil eraser
Most moles are normal and harmless. A normal mole is usually an evenly colored black, tan, or brown spot that does not change size or shape.

If you have an unusual mole or notice a change in a mole you've had for a long time, see a doctor immediately.

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For more information on melanoma, visit these web sites: Back to top