Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

brand logo

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.

Continue Reading


More in AFP

Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.