Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and the leading cause of all skin cancer-related deaths. It begins in skin cells called melanocytes. These are the skin cells that make the pigment called melanin, which gives skin its color. Though melanoma is predominantly found on the skin, it can even occur in the eye (uveal melanoma).
Melanin also protects the deeper layers of the skin from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. When people spend time in the sunlight, the melanocytes make more melanin and cause the skin to tan. This also happens when skin is exposed to other forms of ultraviolet light (such as in a tanning booth). If the skin receives too much ultraviolet light, the melanocytes may begin to grow abnormally and become cancerous. This condition is called melanoma.
The first sign of melanoma is often a change in the size, shape, or color of a mole. But melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole.
In men, melanoma most often shows up:
On the upper body, between the shoulders and hips
On the head and neck
In women, melanoma often develops on the lower legs.
In dark-skinned people, melanoma often appears:
Under the fingernails or toenails
On the palms of the hands
On the soles of the feet
Melanomas can be black or brown in color or red, purple, pink, blue, white, or skin-colored.
Melanoma can quickly spread to other parts of the body so it is important to detect and treat melanoma in its early stages.
The chance of getting melanoma increases as you get older, but people of any age can get melanoma. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults (ages 25 to 29). Each year, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. learn that they have melanoma. Melanoma is a serious and sometimes life-threatening cancer. If melanoma is found and treated in its early stages, the chances of recovery are very good. If it is not found early, melanoma can grow deeper into the skin and spread to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. Once melanoma has spread to other parts of the body beyond the skin, it is difficult to treat.