The first Monday in May is known as Melanoma Monday, which kicks off Melanoma Awareness Month.  The goal is to make people more aware of the deadliest form of skin cancer.  Even though it is a serious cancer, it is treatable when caught early.  Let’s talk more about melanoma, including clues to help you recognize it.  Knowing the warning signs can help insure early detection and treatment in you or a loved one.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in specialized skin cells called melanocytes.  They are the skin cells that produce the pigment known as melanin.

What causes melanoma?

Although the exact cause of melanoma is still unclear, it is likely that melanoma is caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetic factors.  We do know that environmental exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases your risk of developing melanoma, and most doctors agree that this UV exposure is the leading cause of melanoma.  UV radiation comes from sunlight and from tanning lamps and tanning beds.  You may think of UV light as just light, but it is actually a form of radiation, which is very damaging to your skin cells.

What are the factors that can increase your risk of developing melanoma?

  • Having fair skin – With less pigment in your skin, you have less protection from damaging UV radiation. People with blond or red hair, light colored eyes, or freckles, or those who sunburn easily, are more likely to develop melanoma.  But melanoma can develop in people with darker complexions, even in black people.
  • History of Sunburn – Even one severe, blistering sunburn in the past can increase your risk.
  • Excessive UV exposure – From sunlight or tanning beds. Even one tanning bed session increases your risk.
  • Living close to the equator or at higher elevations – The more direct sunlight at these locations leads to higher amounts of UV radiation.
  • Spending a lot of time in areas covered with snow, sand, water, or pavement – All of these have reflective properties, which increase your UV exposure.
  • Having many moles, or unusual moles – More than 50 ordinary moles on your body increases your risk. Unusual moles also increase your risk, such as moles that are larger, have a mixture of colors, or have irregular borders.  Some people are born with this type of mole.
  • Family history of melanoma – Melanoma in a close relative increases your risk.
  • Having a weakened immune system – Either from a disease that affects your immune system or from taking medication that lowers your immunity (such as after an organ transplant) increases risk.

Where do melanomas occur?

A melanoma can develop anywhere on your body.  They most often develop on the skin in areas that get the most sun exposure.  However, they can develop on the soles of your feet, on the palms of your hands, under fingernails or toenails, in your eyes, or rarely inside your body.

How can you spot a melanoma?

To help you identify skin growths (including moles) that may be melanomas, we encourage you to look for the ABCDE’s of melanoma:

  • A – Asymmetry – An irregular shape, especially with two very different looking halves.
  • B – Border – An irregular border, such as notched or scalloped borders.
  • C – Changes in color – Growths that have many colors or an uneven distribution of colors. The color may not always be dark brown or black.  The colors may include pink, red, or blue.
  • D – Diameter – Usually greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).
  • E – Evolving – Watch for changes over time. Moles that grow, change in color or shape, or begin to itch or bleed without obvious reasons need to be evaluated.

Use this link for more information about spotting melanomas:

What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma (

Next time we will talk about how a diagnosis of melanoma is made as well as ways that you can help reduce your risk of developing melanoma.

If you have any questions about melanoma, please log into your account and send
us your question. We are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor

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