Malignant melanoma

Malignant melanoma is the most virulent of all skin cancers.

Skin mole

It develops on the skin of an estimated 27,300 Americans. An estimated 5,800 die from malignant melanoma, but that rate is declining because patients are seeking help earlier.

Melanoma, like its less aggressive cousins, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas is almost always curable in its early stages.

Melanoma has its beginnings in melanocytes — the skin cells which produce the dark protective pigment, called melanin, which is responsible for suntanned skin acting as a partial protection against the sun. Melanoma cells usually continue to produce melanin, which accounts for the cancers appearing in mixed shades of tan, brown and black. Melanoma has a strong tendency to spread, making it more difficult to treat.

Melanoma may suddenly appear without warning but it may also begin in or near a mole or other dark spot in the skin. That’s why it’s important to know the location and appearance of the moles on our bodies so any change will be noticed.


As with the other skin cancers, it’s generally accepted that excessive exposure to the sun causes of melanoma, especially among light-skinned people.

Heredity may play a part. Atypical moles, which may run in families, can serve as markers, identifying the person as being at higher risk for developing melanoma there or elsewhere in the skin.

Dark brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. Darker skin tones can develop this cancer, especially on the palm of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails, or in the mouth.

The ABC’s of Melanoma

One half doesn’t match the other half.

Border irregularity
The edges are ragged, notched or blurred.

The pigmentation is not uniform. Shades of tan, brown and black are present. Dashes of red, white and blue add to the mottled appearance.

Diameter greater than six millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) Any growth in size of a mole should be of concern.

Some additional warning signs of melanoma may include:

  • Changes in the surface of a mole: scaliness, oozing, bleeding or the appearance of a bump or nodule
  • Spread of pigment from the border into surrounding skin
  • Changes in sensation including itchiness, tenderness, or pain