Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2006;74(5):813-814

What is melanoma?

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide, and die. Sometimes cells begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. Rather than dying, these cells clump together to form tumors. If these tumors are cancerous, they can kill your body’s healthy tissues. From these tumors, cancer cells can spread and form new tumors in other parts of the body.

Melanoma is a type 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.

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 have a higher risk. Talk with your doctor about your risk factors.

  • Has anyone in your family had 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 that caused blisters 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 chest, stomach, or back. In women, they are most often on the lower legs.

What does a melanoma look like?

A melanoma might look like a mole or a bump on your skin. Melanomas often do not look bad at first. If you notice that a mole has changed, or if you have a new mole that doesn’t look like your other moles, visit your doctor right away.

How can I keep from getting melanoma?

The most important way to prevent melanoma is to limit the amount of time you spend in the sun. The following are some ways to do this:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

  • When you are outside, try to stay in shaded areas as much as possible.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants while you are in the sun.

  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Put the sunscreen on 30 minutes before you go outside. Put it on again every two to three hours and after sweating and swimming.

  • Do not use tanning beds or sunlamps.

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

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

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Dermatology

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute

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