Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(10):2285

See related article on prevention and early detection of melanoma.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a kind of skin cancer. It is sometimes called malignant melanoma. Melanoma is becoming more common every year. This is a very serious kind of skin cancer that can cause death. If this cancer is caught early, when it is very small, it can be cured. A melanoma can grow in a mole that you have had for years. Or it can grow in a spot that never had a mole before.

What does melanoma look like?

Melanomas can have many different looks and can occur anyplace on the body. It is important to see your doctor if you get a new mole or if you have a mole that is changing in the way it looks.

A melanoma is usually irregular in shape, with blurry edges. One melanoma may have many different colors in it, like black, brown or tan. A melanoma can be flat or raised. Your doctor may not be able to tell if a mole is a melanoma just by looking at it. Your doctor may have to do a biopsy to find out for sure if a mole is a melanoma. To do a biopsy, your doctor cuts out the mole and sends it to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.

How can I keep from getting melanoma?

The most important way to prevent melanoma is to limit your sun exposure. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Avoid the strong midday sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

  • When you are outside, try to spend your time in shaded areas.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat (to shade your face and protect your ears).

  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants while out in the sun.

  • Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. SPF means “sun protection factor.” Put the sunscreen on 30 minutes before you go outside. Put it on again every 2 to 3 hours and after sweating and swimming.

  • Do not use sunbeds or tanning salons.

  • If you are worried about a spot on your skin, tell your doctor about it.

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