Health awareness

Understanding melanoma: the signs, symptoms and risk factors

Learn more about how to detect and prevent melanoma

April 6, 2023

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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer. Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, melanoma is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths in the U.S.

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, including areas without sun exposure, but they are more likely to start in certain locations, like the face and neck, legs (most common in women), and chest and back (most common in men).

The average age of diagnosis is 65, but melanoma is not uncommon among people younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults — especially young women.

Melanoma diagnosis rates have been rising over the past few decades


new cases of melanoma of the skin are estimated to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2023

~ 58,000 men | ~ 39,000 women

While melanoma accounts for only about 1 percent of all skin cancers in the U.S., it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.

Signs of cancerous moles

According to the American Cancer Society, a new spot on the skin or one that changes in size, shape or color, or one that looks different — is an important warning sign of melanoma and should be checked by a doctor. The ABCDE rule outlines the characteristics of moles that may be melanoma and is helpful guidance for monitoring skin changes:

Illustration of Asymmetry

A is for Asymmetry

One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.

Illustration of border

B is for Border

The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.

Illustration of color

C is for Color

The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.

Illustration of diameter

D is for Diameter

The spot is more than 6 millimeters across (about 1/4 inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.

E is for Evolving

The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Illustration of evolving

Any of these warning signs should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you feel you are at risk for melanoma.

Causes of melanoma

There are many risk factors and causes of melanoma, including:

  • Ultraviolet light on your skin, such as from the sun or a tanning bed (the most common risk factor for melanoma)
  • Age — melanoma is more common in older people, but younger people are also at risk. Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 years (especially among women)
  • Moles — having atypical, suspicious moles, many moles and/or large moles
  • Personal or family history – Melanoma can be genetic and having a relative with melanoma can increase your risk
  • Fair skin or a fair complexion, a lot of freckles and/or light-colored hair and eyes

Ways to lower your risk of melanoma

Melanoma can’t be entirely prevented, but there are ways to lower risk. The number one way to lower risk is to protect against UV rays, which damage the DNA of skin cells and impact the genes that control skin cell growth. The top source of UV rays is the sun. That’s why it’s important to practice sun safety every time you go outside, even on cloudy days when UV rays can still shine through. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

Seek shade

UV exposure is greatest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside during these hours, seek shade – under a tree, an umbrella or an awning.

Wear a hat

Try to find a hat with a wide brim – at least 2 or 3 inches wide – to protect your face, top of the head, ears and neck.

Cover up

Choose clothing with a tight knit or weave, and avoid shirts that you can see through. Remember, if light is getting through, then UV rays are too.

Use sunscreen

For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Wear sunglasses

Protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Pick a pair of sunglasses that will block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.

Check the UV index

Check the sun’s UV index forecast online at the Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index website.

Stages of melanoma and survival rates