What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes, the pigment producing cells in the skin. Melanocytes can also be found in other areas outside of the skin, such as the eyes, genitals, and mouth, but melanoma most commonly develops in the skin. 

Risk Factors

The rates of melanoma have been steadily increasing over the years, and it is important to know the risk factors of developing melanoma, which include:

  • History of UV light exposure (tanning beds, sunburns)
  • Having light colored skin and freckles
  • Having moles
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Being biologically male
  • Increasing age

Signs and symptoms

A new mole on the skin or a change in an existing mole should be evaluated. The ABCDEs of moles should be used:

  • A: Asymmetry: the mole size is irregular and each sides of the mole don’t match
  • B: Borders: the borders are irregular or blurred
  • C: Color: the color of the mole is not the same throughout or is changing to different shades
  • D: Diameter: the mole is >6mm
  • E: Evolving: the mole’s shape, size, or color is changing


If someone has a suspicious skin lesion, they may be recommended to undergo a biopsy. This is the only way to tell if a skin lesion is melanoma or not. A biopsy can be done one of a few ways, either a shave biopsy, punch biopsy, or excisional biopsy. 

A shave biopsy removes the top surface of the skin lesion to be tested for cancer cells. If a melanoma is suspected, this may not be the biopsy that’s ordered, as it may not get the full lesion for evaluation. 

A punch biopsy uses a special tool to get a biopsy and getting into a deeper layer of the skin. This also may not remove the entire lesion, but may be better able to get through to the deeper layers for a more complete evaluation. 

An excisional biopsy removes the suspicious lesion as well as an area of healthy tissue around it for testing. If this shows that the entire melanoma has been removed, it may be a curative procedure. 

When melanoma has been identified from a biopsy, additional testing is often done to learn some of the characteristics of it, such as for the presence of any gene mutations that the cancer may have. One in particular is called BRAF. This gene is seen in about 50% of all melanomas, and if it’s present, may be treated with targeted medications for that gene mutation. 


Interested in learning more about Melanoma staging and Treatments? Check out our next article on this topic.



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