Skin cancer, specifically melanoma, is a serious health concern for absolutely everyone. More than 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year – and it affects men and women of all ages¹. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and if you’ve been exposed to UV light, you have an increased risk of developing this cancer².

Although doctors aren’t certain what the exact cause of melanoma is, there are a lot of other factors that doctors do know. And understanding what melanoma looks like, how it can develop, and how it’s treated could save your life. If detected early, melanoma can be successfully treated.

Here’s what you need to know about melanoma, its warning signs, and its symptoms.

Anyone Can Develop Melanoma

One of the most important things to understand about melanoma is that everyone is at risk. Anyone can develop melanoma, and it can happen at any age.

Melanoma appears when something goes wrong in the DNA of your body’s melanocytes, or the cells that produce melanin³. Instead of developing and producing melanin in normal ways, the melanocytes suddenly begin growing out of control and forming masses of cancerous cells.

Because doctors aren’t certain what exactly causes the melanocytes to become cancerous, how the DNA of these cells changes is unclear. But what is known is that certain behaviors and factors can increase the chances that you might develop melanoma.

And exposure to UV light is one of the biggest factors. Exposure to UV light, either from the sun or from tanning lamps and beds, is the leading cause of melanoma⁴. Melanoma often appears in areas of the body that get frequent exposure to sunlight or UV rays.

But UV light isn’t the only factor that can contribute to melanoma. Other risk factors include⁵:

  • Having fair skin.
  • A history of getting sunburns, particularly sunburns that blister.
  • Living close to the equator or at a higher elevation.
  • Having more than 50 ordinary moles.
  • A family history of melanoma.
  • Having a weakened immune system.

If you’re worried about your risk for melanoma, it’s a good idea to discuss potential risk factors with your doctor.

What Melanoma Looks Like

When melanoma first develops, you might not notice any changes to your body or your overall health. And often, when melanoma does become visible, it can be difficult to track and identify.

The very first signs of melanoma are typically a change within an existing mole or the development of a new skin growth⁶. This could be the appearance of a new mole, an unusual-looking growth, or a pigmentation change.

Identifying changes in moles all over your body isn’t easy. So, as you check your skin for potential signs of melanoma, you’ll want to use the ABCDE rule. This rule is a guide to help you distinguish between normal moles and potential occurrences of melanoma.

To use the ABCDE rule, you should look for these following potential changes to your skin that could signal melanoma⁷:

  • A – Asymmetry. One half of a mole doesn’t look identical to the other half.
  • B – Border. The edges of a spot or mole are ragged, irregular, or blurry.
  • C – Color. The color of a mole or spot varies and includes different, varying shades.
  • D – Diameter. A mole or spot is more than 6 millimeters (or ¼ of an inch) across.
  • E – Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.

In addition to following the ABCDE rule, you should also keep an eye out for any spots or moles that look different from all the rest. These spots can be a sign of melanoma – and if anything just doesn’t look “right” on your skin, you should talk with a doctor about it.

It’s also important to remember that some melanomas can defy all of the signs of the ABCDE rule. See your doctor if you need any expert advice on spots or moles anywhere on your body.

Potential Symptoms of Melanoma

In addition to the visible changes that can signal melanoma, you may also experience some symptoms. These symptoms can be clearer and more easily identifiable in some cases.

Potential warning signs and symptoms of melanoma can include⁸:

  • Sores that take a long time to heal, or sores that won’t heal.
  • Pigment that’s spreading in an area of skin.
  • Moles that are red or swollen.
  • Itchiness.
  • Tenderness.
  • Pain.
  • Changes to the surface of a mole, such as scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or lumps and bumps.

If you experience new developments in your skin such as these, make an appointment to see your doctor. They can examine the areas of concern and do the tests necessary to get a proper diagnosis.

How Melanoma is Treated

If you do develop melanoma, it’s important to get a diagnosis as early as possible. The sooner you and your doctor know that you have melanoma, the sooner treatment can begin – and the better the overall prognosis.

Your doctor will develop a treatment plan based on your specific case of melanoma. Treatment plans vary depending on how much your melanoma has grown and progressed, if it has spread to other parts of the body, and if you have other health concerns or complications.

Treating melanoma usually involves one or a combination of the following treatment options⁹:

  • Surgery, in which the cancerous area is cut out of the skin.
  • Lymphadenectomy, a surgery that removes cancerous lymph nodes.
  • Immunotherapy, which uses medication to help the body’s immune system destroy cancerous cells.
  • Targeted therapy, which uses drugs that can target cancer cells and shrink cancer that’s present in the body.
  • Chemotherapy, a medication that kills cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy, which uses x-rays to kill cancer cells and prevent new cancerous growths.

Ultimately, if melanoma is detected early, it often offers promising results. That’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on your skin and understand how melanoma can develop. If you’re informed, you’ll be better prepared to protect yourself and catch any potential warning signs early on.