Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It develops in the skin cells called melanocytes and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun. Rare melanomas can also start inside the eye or in a part of the skin or body that has never been exposed to the sun, such as the nervous system, mucous membrane (lining of the mouth, digestive tract, etc), soles of the feet, palms, and under the nails.
Although it is one of the less common types of skin cancer, melanoma is considered the most serious types of skin cancer because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, especially if not detected early. The earlier melanoma is found, the more successful treatment is likely to be.
On this page you will find information on:
- Types of melanoma
- How common is melanoma?
- What are the risk factors?
- What are the symptoms of melanoma?
- How is melanoma diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for melanoma?
- What is the prognosis for melanoma?
- What support is available?
Types of melanoma
Melanoma of the skin is known as cutaneous melanoma. The major subtypes are:
Superficial spreading melanoma
This makes up 55-60% of all melanomas. It is more common in younger people and is often related to a pattern of irregular high sun exposure, including episodes of sunburn. It can start as a new brown or black spot that grows on the surface of the skin, or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes size, colour or shape. It can develop on any part of the body but especially the trunk. This type of melanoma often grows slowly and becomes more dangerous when it invades the lower layer of the skin (dermis)
This type makes up about 10-15% of melanomas. It usually appears as a round, raised lump (nodule) on the surface of the skin that is pink, red, brown or black and feels firm to touch. It may develop a crusty surface that bleeds easily. Nodular melanoma is most commonly found in older people on sun-damaged skin on the head and neck. It is a fast growing and aggressive form of melanoma, spreading quickly into the lower layer of the skin (dermis).
Lentigo maligna melanoma
This type of melanoma is most common in older people. It makes up about 10-15% of melanomas and begins as a large freckle (lentigo maligna) in an area of sun-damaged skin, such as the face, ears, neck and head. It may grow slowly and superficially over many years before it penetrates more deeply into the skin.
Acral lentiginous melanoma
This is a rare type of melanoma (about 1-2% of all cases). It is most commonly found on the palms of the hands, or under the fingernails or toenails. It commonly appears as a colourless or lightly pigmented area, which may be mistaken for a stain or bruise. In the nails, it most often presents as a long streak of pigment in the nail. It tends to grow slowly before becoming invasive.
This is another rare type of melanoma (about 1% of cases). It often appears on the head and neck of sun-damaged skin. Desmoplastic melanoma presents as a firm, growing frequently skin coloured lump, sometimes described as scar-like. Some have a patch of overlaying pigmentation and can be difficult to diagnose.
Other types of melanoma
Some rarer types of melanoma start in part of the body other than the skin. Mucosal melanoma can start in the tissues in the mouth, anus, urethra, vagina or nasal passages. Ocular melanoma can start inside the eye. Melanoma can also start in the central nervous system.
How common is melanoma?
Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. More than 3600 people are estimated to be diagnosed with melanoma in Queensland every year. Melanoma is the third most common cancer in both men and women. One in 13 men and one in 22 women will be diagnosed with melanoma before age 85.
What causes melanoma?
The main cause of all types of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or another source, such as solariums (tanning beds). Solariums are now banned in Australia for commercial use because research shows that people who use solariums have a significantly greater risk of developing melanoma.
When your unprotected skin is exposed to UV radiation, the structure and behaviour of the cells can change.
What are the risk factors?
Anyone can develop melanoma, however the risk is higher in people who have:
- Unprotected exposure to the sun
- A history of childhood tanning and sunburn
- Lots of moles (naevi) – more than 10 moles above the elbow on the arms and more than 100 on the body
- Moles with irregular shape and uneven colour (dysplastic naevi)
- A previous melanoma or other type of skin cancer
- A strong family history of melanoma
- Pale, fair or freckled skin, especially if it burns easily and doesn’t tan
- A pattern of short, intense periods of exposure to UV radiation, such as on weekends and holidays, especially if it caused sunburn
- Light coloured eyes (blue or green), and fair or red hair
- A weakened immune system from using immune suppression medicines for a long time.
Overexposure to UV radiation can permanently damage the skin. This damage adds up over time. Childhood exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of skin cancer later in life, although sun protection will help prevent melanoma at any age.
What are the symptoms of melanoma?
Melanoma can vary greatly in the way it looks. In people who have lots of moles, melanoma usually stands out and looks different from the other moles. The first sign is often a new spot or a change in an existing mole.
- Size – The spot may appear or grow larger.
- Colour – The mole may become increasingly blotchy with different depth and shades of colour (brown, black, blue, red, white, light grey, pink or skin-coloured).
- Shape or border – The spot may increase in height, become scaly, have an irregular edge (scalloped or notched) or lack symmetry (the halves look different).
- Itching or bleeding – The mole may itch or bleed at times.
- Elevation – the spot may start as a raised nodule or develop a raised area, which are often reddish or reddish brown.
New moles can appear during childhood and through to the 30s and 40s, as well as during pregnancy. However, adults should see their doctor to get a new mole examined, particularly if it is noticeably different from other moles or is raised, firm and growing. Even if you have had a mole checked before and it was considered benign, it is important to regularly check your skin for any change in shape, size or colour in the future. Talk to your doctor immediately about any changes.
How is melanoma diagnosed?
Physical examination – if you notice any changes to your skin, your doctor will examine you, looking carefully at any spots you have identified as changed or suspicious. The doctor will ask if you or your family have a history of melanoma.
Removing the mole (excision biopsy) – If the doctor suspects that a spot on your skin may be melanoma, the whole spot is removed for examination by a tissue specialist (pathologist). This is generally a simple procedure done in your doctors office. Your GP may do it, or you may be referred to a dermatologist or surgeon.
Checking the lymph nodes – Your doctor may feel the lymph nodes near the melanoma to see if they are enlarged. To test whether the melanoma has spread, your doctor may recommend that you have a fine needle biopsy or a sentinel lymph node biopsy.
What is the treatment for melanoma?
Melanoma that is found early (stages 0-II) can generally be treated successfully with surgery. If the melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues (stage III or regional melanoma), treatment may also include removing lymph nodes and additional (adjuvant) treatments.
- Surgery to remove the mole is the main treatment for early melanoma and it can also be the only treatment you need.
- Removing the lymph nodes – If your doctors examination, ultrasound or lymph node biopsy shows that the melanoma has spread to your lymph nodes (regional melanoma or Stage III), you will have scans regularly and, in some cases, may be offered immunotherapy or targeted therapy (systemic treatment). If melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes and caused a lump, the lymph nodes will be removed in an operation called a lymph node dissection or lymphadenectomy. This is performed under general anaeasthetic and requires a longer stay in hospital. Usually only the lymph nodes near the melanoma are removed.
- Adjuvant therapies – if there is a risk that the melanoma could come back (recur) after surgery, other treatments are sometimes used to reduce that risk. There are known as adjuvant (or additional) treatment. They may be used alone or together and can include immunotherapy, targeted therapy or radiation therapy.
For more information on the treatment of melanoma please refer to the Understanding Melanoma booklet.
What is the prognosis for melanoma?
Prognosis means the predicted outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead, your doctor can discuss any concerns you have.
Melanoma can be treated most effectively in its early stages when it is still confined to the top layer of the skin (epidermis). The deeper a melanoma penetrates into the lower layers of the skin, the greater the risk that it could spread to the nearby lymph nodes or other organs.
In recent years, clinical trials have led to new treatments that continue to improve the prognosis for people with melanoma that has spread from the primary site (advanced melanoma).
Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.
What support is available?
Whether you have been diagnosed with a melanoma, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.
Find out more about:
- Phone support
- Email support
- Cancer counselling
- Practical and financial support
- Support groups
- Information sessions
You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.
You can also refer to the Melanoma What to Expect guide to help you make sense of what should happen, and to help you with what questions to ask your health professionals to make sure you receive the best care at every step.