Cancer Care

What Is Melanoma? Skin Cancer Identification, Risk Factors, and Prevention

Should you be concerned about melanoma? Skin cancer rates are on the rise, including melanoma, but a routine screening with a dermatologist will go a long way toward alleviating fears and catching trouble spots early when they are easier to treat. The key here is having the right knowledge and being diligent in checking yourself. If you know what to look for on your skin and how to protect yourself from the sun, you have a good chance of catching trouble spots at the right time — or avoiding them altogether.

Identifying Growths

People often have benign skin growths such as moles. These growths stay in place and are not life-threatening. However, if they mutate and become cancerous, they can spread and damage tissue. Melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer, develops in this same fashion: The pigment cells in the skin become damaged and mutate, spreading to other parts of the body. The problem here is benign moles and cancerous lesions often look very similar, so you want to know the trouble signs to determine if a physician should check out anything that looks suspicious.

Moles are evaluated using the ABCDE rule to determine whether they should be tested for melanoma:

  • Asymmetry. Cancer cells are irregular and grow faster than other cells. If one side of a mole is larger or irregular, this is a sign that the mole needs a closer look.
  • Border. The edge around a mole should be well-defined. If part of a mole's edge becomes blurred or ragged, unregulated cancer growth may be the cause.
  • Color. The mole's color should stay consistent throughout. If the mole develops splotchy variations in color, whether shades of the same color or different colors, it may be cause for concern.
  • Diameter. Most moles are the size of a pencil eraser or even smaller. Larger moles and moles that start growing may need to be seen by a physician.
  • Evolving. A mole experiencing any kind of significant change should be shown to a doctor, especially if it becomes rough or scaly or starts bleeding or oozing.

Risk Factors for Melanoma

People with light-colored skin, light-colored eyes, and red or blonde hair are at increased risk for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. However, it's important to note that anyone can get melanoma, and melanoma in people with darker skin tones is often diagnosed at a later stage because it goes unnoticed. If you have a lot of moles or several large moles, or if you have a family history of unusual moles, this is also a key risk factor.

Exposure to UVA and UVB radiation from the sun or from tanning beds is another big risk factor. Environmental exposure to solvents, radiation, and vinyl chloride may also cause melanoma, so it's just as important to check parts of the body that never see the sun.


There are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing melanoma (skin cancer of any type follows the same general guidelines). First of all, limit your exposure to the sun's rays. When you're outside, cover your skin with long pants and sleeves, and wear a hat and UV-protective sunglasses. Of course, don't forget sunscreen! Make sure you're using a product with an SPF level appropriate for your skin. Be vigilant, even on cloudy days, as you can still get burned through clouds and may even be exposed via reflective surfaces.

In the end, it comes down to taking good care of your skin by protecting yourself when you're outside. If you practice basic skin protection and regularly check yourself for suspicious growths, you're staying ahead of the game. Knowing how to protect yourself and which telltale signs to look for is half the battle.

Posted in Cancer Care

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.