Health A to Z
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can spread to other organs in the body.
This page covers:
The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. This can occur anywhere on the body, but the most commonly affected areas are the back in men and the legs in women. Melanomas are uncommon in areas which are protected from sun exposure, such as the buttocks and the scalp.
In most cases, melanomas have an irregular shape and are more than one colour. The mole may also be larger than normal and can sometimes be itchy or bleed. Look out for a mole which changes progressively in shape, size and/or colour.
An "ABCDE moles checklist" has been developed to help you tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma.
Read more about the symptoms of melanoma.
These pages mainly cover superficial spreading melanoma, the most common type. Other types of melanoma are also summarised below.
Around seven out of 10 (70%) of all melanomas in the UK are superficial spreading melanomas. They're more common in people with pale skin and freckles, and much less common in darker skinned people.
They initially tend to grow outwards rather than downwards, so don't pose a problem. However, if they grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin, they can spread to other parts of the body.
Therefore, you should see your GP if you have a mole that's getting bigger, particularly if it has an irregular edge.
Nodular melanomas are a faster-developing type of melanoma that can quickly grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin if not removed.
Nodular melanomas usually appear as a changing lump on the skin which might be black to red in colour. They often grow on previously normal skin and most commonly occur on the head and neck, chest or back. Bleeding or oozing is a common symptom.
Around one in 10 melanomas (10%) are lentigo maligna melanomas. They most commonly affect older people, particularly those who've spent a lot of time outdoors. They develop slowly over a number of years and appear in areas that are often exposed to the sun, such as the face.
To start with, lentigo maligna melanomas are flat and develop sideways in the surface layers of skin. They look like a freckle but they're usually larger, darker and stand out more than a normal freckle. They can gradually get bigger and may change shape. At a later stage, they may grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin and can form lumps (nodules).
Acral lentiginous melanomas are a rare type of melanoma that usually occur on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. They can also sometimes develop around a nail, most commonly the thumbnail or big toenail.
Acral lentiginous melanomas are the most common type of melanoma in people with dark skin, but they can occur in people with any skin type.
Amelanotic melanomas are also rare, accounting for about 5 in 100 melanomas (5%). They usually have little or no colour, but may occasionally be pink or red, or have light brown or grey edges.
Cancer Research UK has more information about the different types of melanoma.
Melanoma is caused by skin cells that begin to develop abnormally. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is thought to cause most melanomas, but there's evidence to suggest that some may result from sunbed exposure. The type of sun exposure that causes melanoma is sudden intense exposure – for example, while on holiday, which leads to sunburn.
Certain things can increase your chances of developing melanoma, such as having:
Read more about the causes of melanoma.
Excluding non-melanoma, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Around 13,500 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year.
More than a quarter of skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50, which is unusually early compared to most other types of cancer.
Over recent years, skin cancer has become much more common in the UK. This is thought to be the result of increased exposure to intense sunlight while on holiday abroad.
More than 2,000 people die every year in the UK from melanoma.
See your GP if you notice any change to your moles. They'll refer you to a specialist clinic or hospital if they think you have melanoma.
In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed and closely examined to see whether it's cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. A biopsy usually involves removing a small tissue sample. However, in cases of melanoma, the whole thing is usually removed from the beginning.
You may also have a test to check if melanoma has spread to the lymph glands (nodes). This is known as a sentinel node biopsy.
Read more about diagnosing melanoma.
The main treatment for melanoma is surgery, although your treatment will depend on your circumstances.
If melanoma is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, surgery is usually successful.
If melanoma isn't diagnosed until an advanced stage, treatment is mainly used to slow the spread of the cancer and reduce symptoms. This usually involves medicines that target specific genetic changes in the melanoma, such as BRAF inhibitors, or medicines that boost the body's immune responses to the melanoma (so-called checkpoint therapies).
Read more about treating melanoma.
Once you've had melanoma, there's a chance it may return. This risk is increased if your cancer was more advanced or widespread.
If your cancer team feels there's a significant risk of your melanoma returning, you'll need regular check-ups to monitor your health. You'll also be taught how to examine your skin and lymph nodes to help detect melanoma if it returns.
Melanoma isn't always preventable, but you can reduce your chances of developing it by avoiding getting sunburned (even going pink in the sun).
Most people get burnt while abroad on holiday or in the UK in the summer while doing outdoor activities, such as gardening, sunbathing or playing cricket.
On these occasions you need to be really careful, particularly if you have pale skin and many moles. You can help protect yourself from sun damage by using sunscreen and dressing sensibly in the sun. Sunbeds and sunlamps should be avoided.
Regularly checking your skin can help lead to an early diagnosis and increase your chances of successful treatment.
Read more about sunscreen and sun safety.
The first sign of a melanoma is often a new mole or a change in the appearance of an existing mole.
Normal moles are usually round or oval, with a smooth edge, and no bigger than 6mm (1/4 inch) in diameter (see first photo).
See your GP as soon as possible if you notice changes in a mole, freckle or patch of skin, particularly if the changes happen over a few weeks or months (see second photo, below).
Signs to look out for include a mole that's:
The ABCDE checklist should help you tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma:
See ABCDE of moles for a visual guide.
Melanomas can appear anywhere on your body, but they most commonly appear on the back in men and on the legs in women. They can also develop underneath a nail, on the sole of the foot, in the mouth, or in the genital areas, but these types of melanoma are rare.
In rare cases, melanoma can develop in the eye. It develops from pigment-producing cells called melanocytes.
Eye melanoma usually affects the eyeball. The most common type is uveal or choroidal melanoma, which occurs at the back of the eye. Very rarely it can occur on the conjunctiva (the thin layer of tissue that covers the front of the eye) or in the iris (the coloured part of the eye).
Noticing a dark spot or changes in vision can be signs of eye melanoma, although it's more likely to be diagnosed during a routine eye examination.
Read more about melanoma of the eye.
Most skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet (UV) light damaging the DNA in skin cells. The main source of UV light is sunlight.
Sunlight contains three types of UV light:
UVC is most dangerous to the skin but is filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere. UVA and UVB damage pale skin over time, making it more likely for skin cancers to develop. UVB is thought to be the main cause of skin cancer overall, but it isn't yet known whether UVA also plays a role in causing melanoma.
Artificial sources of light, such as sunlamps and tanning beds, also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Repeated sunburn, either by the sun or artificial sources of light, increases the risk of melanoma in people of all ages.
You're at an increased risk of melanoma if you have lots of moles on your body, particularly if they're large (over 5mm) or unusually shaped.
For this reason, it's important to monitor your moles for changes and avoid exposing them to intense sun.
Read more about checking your skin.
You're also more likely to develop melanoma skin cancer if you have:
The risk of developing skin cancer also increases with age.
Cancer Research UK has more information about melanoma risks and causes.
A diagnosis of melanoma will usually begin with an examination of your skin.
Some GPs take digital photographs of suspected tumours so they can email them to a specialist for assessment.
As melanoma is a relatively rare condition, many GPs will only see a case every few years. It's important to monitor your moles and return to your GP if you notice any changes. Taking photos to document any changes will help with diagnosis.
You'll be referred to a dermatology clinic for further testing if melanoma is suspected. You should see a specialist within two weeks of seeing your GP.
A dermatologist (skin specialist) or plastic surgeon will examine the mole and the rest of your skin. They may remove the mole and send it for testing (biopsy) to check whether it's cancerous. A biopsy is usually carried out under local anaesthetic, which means the area around the mole will be numbed and you won't feel any pain.
If cancer is confirmed, you'll usually need another operation, most often carried out by a plastic surgeon, to remove a wider area of skin. This is to make absolutely sure that no cancerous cells are left behind in the skin.
You'll have further tests if there's a concern the cancer has spread into other organs, bones or your bloodstream.
If melanoma spreads, it will usually begin spreading through channels in the skin (lymphatics) to the nearest group of glands (lymph nodes). Lymph nodes are part of the body's immune system. They help remove unwanted bacteria and particles from the body and play a role in activating the immune system.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy is a test to determine whether microscopic amounts of melanoma (less than would show up on any X-ray or scan) might have spread to the lymph nodes. It's usually carried out by a specialist plastic surgeon, while you're under general anaesthetic.
A combination of blue dye and a weak radioactive chemical is injected around your scar. This is usually done just before the wider area of skin is removed. The solution follows the same channels in the skin as any melanoma.
The first lymph node the dye and chemical reaches is known as the "sentinel" lymph node. The surgeon can locate and remove the sentinel node, leaving the others intact. The node is then examined for microscopic specks of melanoma (this process can take several weeks).
If the sentinel lymph node is clear of melanoma, it's extremely unlikely that any other lymph nodes are affected. This can be reassuring because if melanoma reaches the lymph nodes, it's more likely to spread elsewhere.
If the sentinel lymph node contains melanoma, there's a risk that other lymph nodes in the same group will also contain melanoma.
Your surgeon should discuss the pros and cons of having a sentinel lymph node biopsy before you agree to having it. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has developed an interactive decision aid called Melanoma: sentinel biopsy – yes or no? to help make the decision easier.
An operation to remove the remaining lymph nodes in the group is known as a completion lymph node dissection or completion lymphadenectomy. NICE have also developed an interactive decision aid called Melanoma: completion lymphadenectomy – yes or no? which outlines the pros and cons of the procedure.
Other tests you may have include:
Healthcare professionals use a staging system called the AJCC system to describe how far melanoma has grown into the skin (the thickness) and whether it has spread. The type of treatment you receive will depend on what stage the melanoma has reached.
The melanoma stages can be described as:
Cancer Research UK has more information about the stages of melanoma.
Treating stage 1 melanoma involves surgery to remove the melanoma and a small area of skin around it. This is known as surgical excision.
Surgical excision is usually carried out under local anaesthetic, which means you'll be conscious but the area around the melanoma will be numbed, so you won't feel pain. In some cases, general anaesthetic is used, which means you'll be unconscious during the procedure.
If a surgical excision is likely to leave a significant scar, it may be carried out in combination with a skin graft. However, skin flaps are now more commonly used because the scars are usually much better than those resulting from a skin graft.
Read more about flap surgery.
In most cases, once the melanoma has been removed there's little possibility of it returning and no further treatment should be needed. Most people (80-90%) are monitored in clinic for one to five years and are discharged with no further problems.
A sentinel lymph node biopsy is a procedure to test for the spread of cancer. It may be offered to people with stage 1B to 2C melanoma. It's carried out at the same time as surgical excision.
You'll decide with your doctor whether to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy. If you decide to have the procedure and the results show no spread to nearby lymph nodes, it's unlikely you'll have further problems with this melanoma.
If the results confirm melanoma has spread to nearby nodes, your specialist will discuss with you whether further surgery is required. Additional surgery involves removing the remaining nodes, which is known as a lymph node dissection or completion lymphadenectomy.
If the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes (stage three melanoma), further surgery may be needed to remove them.
Stage 3 melanoma may be diagnosed by sentinel node biopsy, or you or a member of your treatment team may have felt a lump in your lymph nodes. The diagnosis of melanoma is usually confirmed using a needle biopsy (fine needle aspiration).
Removing the affected lymph nodes is done under general anaesthetic.
The procedure, called a lymph node dissection, can disrupt the lymphatic system, leading to a build-up of fluids in your limbs. This is known as lymphoedema.
Cancer Research UK has more information about surgery to remove lymph nodes.
If melanoma comes back or spreads to other organs it's called stage 4 melanoma.
In the past, cure from stage four melanoma was very rare but new treatments, such as immunotherapy and targeted treatments, show encouraging results.
Treatment for stage 4 melanoma is given in the hope that it can slow the cancer's growth, reduce symptoms, and extend life expectancy.
You may be offered surgery to remove other melanomas that have occurred away from the original site. You may also be able to have other treatments to help with your symptoms, such as radiotherapy and medication.
If you have advanced melanoma, you may decide not to have treatment if it's unlikely to significantly extend your life expectancy, or if you don't have symptoms that cause pain or discomfort.
It's entirely your decision and your treatment team will respect it. If you decide not to receive treatment, pain relief and nursing care will be made available when you need it. This is called palliative care.
Immunotherapy is used to treat advanced (stage 4) melanoma, and it's sometimes offered to people with stage 3 melanoma as part of a clinical trial.
Immunotherapy uses medication to help the body's immune system find and kill melanoma cells.
A number of different medications are available, some of which can be used on their own (monotherapy) or together (combination therapy). Medications used include:
Ipilimumab is recommended by NICE as a treatment for people with previously treated or untreated advanced melanoma that's spread or can't be removed using surgery.
It's given by injection over a 90-minute period, every three weeks for a total of four doses.
Read the NICE guidance about:
Nivolumab is recommended by NICE for treating advanced cases of melanoma in adults that have spread or can't be removed using surgery.
It's given directly into a vein (intravenously) over a 60-minute period, every two weeks. Treatment is continued for as long as it has a positive effect or until it can no longer be tolerated.
Nivolumab can be used either on its own or in combination with ipilimumab.
In clinical trials, the most common side effects were tiredness, rash, itching, diarrhoea and nausea.
Read the NICE guidance about:
Pembrolizumab is recommended by NICE to treat advanced melanoma in adults that's spread or can't be treated with surgery. It's given by injection for 30 minutes, every three weeks.
In clinical trials, the most common side effects were diarrhoea, nausea, itching, rash, joint pain and fatigue.
Read the NICE guidance about:
Talimogene laherparepvec is recommended by NICE for treating melanoma that's spread or can't be removed with surgery, where treatment with other immunotherapies isn't suitable.
It's injected directly into the skin, sometimes with the help of ultrasound guidance.
Read the NICE guidance about talimogene laherparepvec for treating melanoma that's spread and can't be surgically removed.
Around 40 to 50 in every 100 people with melanoma have changes (mutations) in certain genes, which cause cells to grow and divide too quickly.
If gene mutations have been identified, medication can be used to specifically target these gene mutations to slow or stop cancer cells growing.
Possible targeted treatments include:
Vemurafenib is a medication that blocks the activity of a cancerous gene mutation known as BRAF V600.
It's recommended by NICE as a treatment for people who've tested positive for the mutation and have locally advanced melanoma or melanoma that's spread.
Common side effects include joint pain, tiredness, rash, sensitivity to light, nausea, hair loss and itching.
Vemurafenib can also be used with another medication called cobimetinib for treating people with the BRAF V600 mutation melanoma that's spread or can't be removed with surgery.
Read the NICE guidance about:
Dabrafenib also blocks the activity of BRAF V600.
It's recommended by NICE for treating adults with the BRAF V600 mutation who have melanoma that's spread or can't be removed with surgery.
Common side effects include decreased appetite, headache, cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, rash and hair loss.
Read the NICE guidance about dabrafenib for treating BRAF V600 mutation-positive melanoma that's spread or can't be removed using surgery.
Trametinib blocks the activity of the abnormal BRAF protein, slowing the growth and spread of the cancer.
It's recommended by NICE either for use on its own or with dabrafenib for treating people with melanoma with a BRAF V600 mutation that's spread or can't be removed with surgery.
Common side effects include tiredness, nausea, headache, chills, diarrhoea, rash, join pain, high blood pressure and vomiting.
Read the NICE guidance about trametinib in combination with dabrafenib for treating melanoma that's spread or can't be removed with surgery.
You may have radiotherapy after an operation to remove your lymph nodes, and it can also be used to help relieve the symptoms of advanced melanoma. Controlled doses of radiation are used to kill the cancerous cells.
If you have advanced melanoma, you may have a single treatment or a few treatments. Radiotherapy after surgery usually consists of a course of five treatments a week (one a day from Monday to Friday) for a number of weeks. There's a rest period over the weekend.
Common side effects associated with radiotherapy include:
Many side effects can be prevented or controlled with prescription medicines, so tell your treatment team if you experience any. The side effects of radiotherapy should gradually reduce once treatment has finished.
Chemotherapy is now rarely used to treat melanoma. Targeted treatments and immunotherapy (as described above) are the preferred treatment options.
Research is underway to produce vaccines for melanoma, either to treat advanced melanoma or to be used after surgery in people with a high risk of the melanoma returning.
They're currently only given as part of a clinical trial.
Cancer Research UK has more information about melanoma vaccines.
After your treatment, you'll have regular follow up appointments to check whether:
Your doctor or nurse will examine you, they'll ask about your general health and whether you have any questions or concerns.
You may be offered treatment to try to prevent the melanoma returning. This is called adjuvant treatment. There's not much evidence that adjuvant treatment helps prevent melanoma coming back, so it's currently only offered as part of a clinical trial.
There's evidence that checkpoint therapies, which boost the body's immune responses to cancer, may be used in the future if clinical trials provide evidence that they're effective.
Cancer Research UK has more information about follow up appointments.
Being diagnosed with melanoma can be difficult to deal with. You may feel shocked, upset, numb, frightened, uncertain and confused. These types of feelings are natural.
You can ask your treatment team about anything you're unsure about.
Your family and friends can be a great source of support. Talking about your cancer and how you're feeling can help both you and members of your family cope with the situation.
Some people prefer to talk to people outside their family. There are a number of UK-based charities that have specially trained staff you can speak to on their free helplines:
Cancer Research UK also has a section about living with melanoma.
Find more cancer support services near you.
Any new cancer treatment is first given to patients in a clinical trial.
A clinical trial is a rigorous way of testing new treatments on people. Patients are closely monitored for any effects the medicine has on the cancer as well as any side effects.
Many people with melanoma are offered entry into clinical trials. If you're asked to take part in a clinical trial, you'll be given an information sheet, and if you decide to take part you'll be asked to sign a consent form. You can withdraw from a clinical trial at any time without it affecting your care.
Kate was diagnosed with malignant melanoma after a routine check on a mole.
"I had a mole on the side of my knee that was about 1cm across. It was a bit rough and uneven, and when I saw my GP about something else, I mentioned that I wanted it removed as I didn't like the look of it. I wasn't worried about it, but I used to feel a bit self-conscious if I wore a skirt that wasn't long enough to cover it.
"At the hospital, the doctor suggested I could have a procedure where the top of the mole is shaved off under local anaesthetic. No one seemed to think there was a risk of cancer, but the doctor went ahead with the procedure because of the mole's position. After the procedure, a sample was sent off for a routine check. Two weeks later, I had a message asking me to return to hospital.
"I was quite naive really and I didn't think about why I was going back. But when I went into the clinic, I was told I had malignant melanoma and needed an operation to remove it.
"I was totally shocked by the results. I hadn't considered that anything like this could happen, and the fact that nobody else had thought there was cause for concern made the results even more shocking. I'm fair-skinned with red hair, but I never thought I'd be at risk, as I've never been really badly sunburnt and I've never used sunbeds.
"It all happened very quickly. Two weeks after I received the results, I was given a sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body. This was followed by an operation to remove the melanoma. Initially, they thought I'd need a skin graft, but luckily they managed to stitch up the 5cm incision instead.
"It took about a month to get back to normal again. After the operation, I had to keep a splint on my leg for 10 days, to keep my leg straight and give the wound a chance to heal. It was difficult waiting for the results, as it was hard not to worry that the cancer had spread. However, I was very lucky. The melanoma was self-contained.
"I have to have check-ups every three months for the first two years after the operation. I'll then have them every six months for three more years. The nurse examines my skin and gland areas, and I also check myself at home for any changes to my skin and moles.
"From spring onwards I wear moisturiser with a sunblock in, and during the summer I avoid the sun from 11am to 3pm. I'm careful not to spend too much time in the sun. I don't want to risk getting burnt and doing any more damage to my skin."