Conditions & Treatments

Melanoma

Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer cells are found in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin or pigment known as melanin.

Melanoma

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a disease of the skin in which cancer starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce color in the skin from a pigment known as melanin. Melanoma usually occurs in adults, but it may occasionally be found in children and adolescents. Melanoma may also be called cutaneous melanoma or malignant melanoma. Melanoma is an uncommon, but aggressive, form of skin cancer.

Melanoma is a more serious type of cancer than the more common basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. Although the incidence of melanoma is lower than other types of skin cancer, it has the highest death rate and is responsible for a majority of all deaths from skin cancer.

Where is melanoma most often found?

Melanoma most often appears on fair-skinned men and women, but people with other skin types can be affected. In men, melanoma most often appears on the chest or back. In women, the arms and legs are more common sites. It can also develop on the face, neck, or other areas. Rarely, melanomas can form in parts of the body not covered by skin, such as the eyes, mouth, vagina, large intestine, and other internal organs.

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

People with the following characteristics may be at an increased risk for melanoma:

  • Blond or red hair

  • Blue or green eyes

  • Fair complexion

  • Family history of melanoma

  • Personal history of melanoma

  • Many ordinary moles (more than 50)

  • Many freckles

  • An immunosuppressive disorder

  • Dysplastic nevi (abnormal moles)

  • Sun exposure

  • Early childhood sunburns

  • Inability to tan

  • Tanning bed use  

Dark-brown or black skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. African-Americans can develop this cancer, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails, or in the mouth.

What are the symptoms of melanoma?

The following are the most common symptoms of melanoma. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in the size, shape, or color of a mole

  • Oozing or bleeding from a mole

  • A mole that looks different from your other moles or feels itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender to the touch

Because most malignant melanoma cells still produce melanin, melanoma tumors are often shaded brown or black. Melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole. Melanoma can spread quickly to other parts of the body through the lymph system, or through the blood. Like most cancers, melanoma is best treated when it is diagnosed early.

The symptoms of melanoma may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Distinguishing benign moles from melanoma

To find melanoma early, when it is most treatable, it is important to examine your skin on a regular basis, and become familiar with moles, and other skin conditions, in order to better identify changes. Certain moles are at a higher risk for changing into malignant melanoma. Large moles that are present at birth (congenital nevi), and atypical moles (dysplastic nevi), have a greater chance of becoming malignant. Recognizing changes in your moles, by following this ABCD Chart, is crucial in detecting malignant melanoma at its earliest stage. The warning signs are:

Normal mole / melanoma

Sign

Characteristic

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing asymmetry

Asymmetry

When half of the mole does not match the other half

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing border irregularity

Border

When the border (edges) of the mole are ragged or irregular

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing color

Color

When the color of the mole varies throughout

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing diameter

Diameter

If the mole's diameter is larger than a pencil's eraser

Photographs Used By Permission: National Cancer Institute

Melanomas vary greatly in appearance. Some melanomas may show all of the ABCD characteristics, while others may show only a few, or even none, of these changes. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Cancer Center

  • Skin Cancer (Melanoma)
    Skin cancer treatment at the internationally renowned Center for Melanoma offers novel therapies for individuals with advanced melanoma.
Imaging

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Cancer Imaging and Intervention
    The Cancer Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging combines leading-edge technology and the expertise of specialty-trained radiologists to provide comprehensive cancer detection and monitoring, plus image-guided treatments for specific types of cancer.
  • Adult Medicine Imaging
    The Adult Medicine Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers a wide range of diagnostic exams and minimally invasive, image-guided treatments, all provided using leading-edge equipment and interpreted by specialty-trained radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Psychology Assessment Center
    The pediatric neuropsychology specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychology Assessment Center provide neuropsychological assessments to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological, medical, genetic and developmental disorders.
Department of Dermatology

  • The Melanoma Center and Pigmented Lesion Center (PLC)
    The Melanoma Center and Pigmented Lesion Center (PLC) at Massachusetts General Hospital is the nation's longest-standing multidisciplinary clinic providing care for patients with—or at risk of developing—cutaneous melanoma
Department of Radiation Oncology

  • Head and Neck Program
    The Department of Radiation Oncology's Head-and-Neck Program specializes in providing state-of-the-art radiation therapy for patients with head-and-neck cancers, including complex forms of these diseases.
  • Melanoma and Skin Program
    Leading specialists in the Melanoma and Skin Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology use advanced radiation therapies and techniques to treat melanoma and other malignant skin tumors.
  • Ocular Melanoma and Eye Tumor Program
    Managing treatment for hundreds of patients annually, the Ocular Melanoma and Eye Tumor Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology specializes in state-of-the-art radiation therapy for patients with malignant and benign eye tumors.
  • Sarcoma Program
    The Sarcoma Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology uses state-of-the-art radiation therapies to treat soft tissue and bone tumors, both malignant and benign.
Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine

  • Cancer Program
    Designed to supplement the medical treatment of cancer patients by giving them tools to cope with the stress of their illness, make informed choices about treatment, and maintain hope.
Division of Surgical Oncology

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Luncheon raises funds and skin cancer awareness

MGH Hotline 5.08.09 Approximately 100 people attended the Friends of the MGH Cancer Center’s annual fundraising forum April 22 in the Bulfinch Tents. This year’s event featured MGH skin cancer experts David Fisher, MD, PhD, chief of the Department of Dermatology and director of the Center for Melanoma, left, and Jennifer Wargo, MD, of the Department of Surgery.

Hensin Tsao, MD, recommends what you can do to protect your family from melanoma

Hensin Tsao, MD, Director of Mass General's Melanoma and Pigmented Lesion Center explains how family history, genetic risks and personal health history can all affect your risk of melanoma, and what steps you should take to detect it at an early, treatable stage.

John Murphy

John Murphy has an amazing story to tell. Listen to his story and learn about advances in targeted cancer therapies that are bringing new hope to patients. With the opening of the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies, the Mass General Cancer Center is expanding its phase one clinical trials program to help more patients like him.

Dr. Keith Flaherty

Dr. Keith Flaherty is the director of the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies. Dr. Flaherty and his exceptional team of clinicians and scientists are spearheading research into promising new treatment options for patients through phase I clinical investigation.

Innovative care at the Cancer Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Cancer Center