Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor



Am Fam Physician. 2001 Apr 1;63(7):1374.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a kind of skin cancer. Most other skin cancers don't spread, but melanoma can spread through the whole body. If it is found early, it can be cured. If it is found late, it may be fatal.

Who gets melanoma?

Anyone can get melanoma, but some people are more likely to get it. If you answer yes to any of the questions below, you may be at risk. Talk with your doctor about your risk factors.

  • Did anyone in your family have cancerous moles or a melanoma?

  • Do you have many moles larger than a pencil eraser?

  • Do you have more than 50 moles of any size?

  • Did you ever get a bad sunburn when you were a child?

  • Does your skin usually burn but not tan?

Where do melanomas occur?

Melanomas can be anywhere on your body. In men, they are most often on the trunk (chest, stomach and back) and in women, they are most often on the legs.

What does a melanoma look like?

A melanoma might look like a mole or a bump or growth on your skin. Melanomas often do not look bad at first. Look at your body—do you have any of the moles described below? If you do, ask your doctor to look at it.

  • Any mole, bump or rough patch, new or old, that is changing in the way it looks or feels.

  • A mole that does not look the same on both sides. That is, if you draw a line down the middle of the mole, does the left side look just like the right side?

  • A mole with borders that are blurry or irregular.

  • A mole that changes color or has more than one color.

  • A mole that is raised on one part but flat on the other part.

  • A mole that is getting larger, even if it is flat.

How can I keep from getting melanoma?

As much as you can, try to stay out of the sun from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. If you go outside in the middle of the day, wear long-sleeved shirts, a hat and sunglasses. Use a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.

Sunburns in childhood are the most damaging. Children younger than 6 months should never be outside in direct sunshine. Children six months and older should wear sunscreen every day.

Where can I get more information about skin cancer?

Here are some Web addresses where you can find out more about skin cancer:

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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