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Melanoma is a rare and serious type of cancer that begins in the skin and can spread to other organs in the body.

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. This can happen anywhere on the body, but most often the back, legs, arms and face are affected.

In most cases, melanomas have an irregular shape and more than one colour. They may also be larger than normal moles and can sometimes be itchy or bleed.

An 'ABCDE checklist' has been developed for people to tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma.

Read more about the symptoms of melanoma.

Whys does melanoma happen?

Melanoma happens when some cells in the skin begin to develop abnormally. It is not known exactly why this happens, although it is thought that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from natural or artificial sources may be partly responsible.

A number of factors can increase your chances of developing melanoma, such as having:

  • pale skin that burns easily
  • red or blonde hair
  • lots of moles or freckles
  • a family member who has had melanoma

Read more about the causes of melanoma.


See your GP if you notice any change to your moles. Your GP can often diagnose melanoma after an examination, although they will usually refer you to a specialist in skin conditions (dermatologist) or a specialist plastic surgeon if they think you have melanoma.

In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed and studied to see if it is cancerous. This is known as a biopsy.

You may also have what is known as a sentinel node biopsy to check if melanoma has spread elsewhere in your body.

Read more about diagnosing melanoma.

How is melanoma treated?

The main treatment for melanoma is surgery, although your treatment will depend on your circumstances.

If melanoma is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, surgery is usually successful. However, you may need follow-up care to prevent melanoma recurring.

If melanoma isn't diagnosed until an advanced stage, treatment is mainly used to slow the spread of the cancer and reduce symptoms. This usually involves medicines, such as chemotherapy.

Read more about treating melanoma.

Who is affected

Melanoma is relatively rare, but it is becoming more common. There are currently almost 13,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK.

Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people aged 15-34 and is also responsible for most skin cancer deaths. More than 2,000 people die every year in the UK due to melanoma.

Recurrent melanoma

If you have had melanoma in the past, there is a chance it may return. This risk is increased if your previous cancer was widespread and severe.

If your cancer team feels there is a significant risk of your melanoma returning, you will probably need regular check-ups to monitor your health. You will also be taught how to examine yourself for any tumours on your skin.

Can melanoma be prevented?

Melanoma is not always preventable, but you can reduce your chances of developing the condition by avoiding overexposure to UV light.

You can help protect yourself from sun damage by using sunscreen and dressing sensibly in the sun.

Sunbeds and sunlamps should also be avoided.

Regularly checking your moles and freckles can help lead to an early diagnosis and increase your chances of successful treatment.

Read more about preventing melanoma.

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