Melanoma

Symptoms

Often, the first sign of melanoma skin cancer is a change in the size, shape, color, or feel of an existing mole. Most melanomas have a black or blue-black area. Melanoma also may appear as a new mole. It may be black, abnormal, or "ugly looking." If you have a question or concern about something on your skin, see your doctor.

Thinking of "ABCD" can help you remember what to watch for:

  • Asymmetry—The shape of one half does not match the other.

  • Border—The edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.

  • Color—The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be seen.

  • Diameter—There is a change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil (1/4 inch or 5 millimeters).

Melanomas can vary greatly in how they look. Many show all of the ABCD features. However, some melanomas may show changes or abnormalities in only one or two of the ABCD features.

Melanomas in an early stage may be found when an existing mole changes slightly, for example, when a new black area forms. Newly formed fine scales and itching in a mole also are common symptoms of early melanoma. In more advanced melanoma, the texture of the mole may change. For example, it may become hard or lumpy. Melanomas may feel different from regular moles. More advanced tumors may itch, ooze, or bleed. But melanomas usually do not cause pain.

A skin examination is often part of a routine checkup by a health care provider. People also can check their own skin for new growths or other changes. Changes in the skin, such as a change in a mole, should be reported to the health care provider right away. The person may be referred to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the skin.

Melanoma can be cured if it is diagnosed and treated when the tumor is thin and has not deeply invaded the skin. However, if a melanoma is not removed at its early stages, cancer cells may grow downward from the skin surface and invade healthy tissue. When a melanoma becomes thick and deep, the disease often spreads to other parts of the body and is difficult to control.

People who have had melanoma have a high risk of developing a new melanoma. People at risk for any reason should check their skin regularly and have regular skin exams by a health care provider.

Dysplastic Nevi

Some people have certain abnormal-looking moles (called dysplastic nevi or atypical moles) that are more likely than normal moles to develop into melanoma. Most people with dysplastic nevi have just a few of these abnormal moles; some people have many. People with dysplastic nevi and their health care provider should examine these moles regularly to watch for changes.

Dysplastic nevi often look very much like melanoma. Doctors with special training in skin diseases are in the best position to decide whether an abnormal-looking mole should be closely watched or removed and checked for cancer.

In some families, many members have a large number of dysplastic nevi, and some have had melanoma. Members of these families have a very high risk of melanoma. Doctors often recommend that they have frequent checkups (every 3 to 6 months) so that any problems can be detected early. The doctor may take pictures of a person’s skin to help show when changes occur.

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