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Skin Cancer (Malignant Melanoma)

About

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

This page covers:

Signs and symptoms

Types of melanoma

Causes

Who's affected

Diagnosis

Treatment

Prevention

Signs and symptoms of melanoma

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. This can occur anywhere on the body, but the most commonly affected areas are the back in men and the legs in women. Melanomas are uncommon in areas which are protected from sun exposure, such as the buttocks and the scalp.

In most cases, melanomas have an irregular shape and are more than one colour. The mole may also be larger than normal and can sometimes be itchy or bleed. Look out for a mole which changes progressively in shape, size and/or colour.

An "ABCDE moles checklist" has been developed to help you tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma.

Read more about the symptoms of melanoma.

Types of melanoma

These pages mainly cover superficial spreading melanoma, the most common type. Other types of melanoma are also summarised below.

Superficial spreading melanoma

Around seven out of 10 (70%) of all melanomas in the UK are superficial spreading melanomas. They're more common in people with pale skin and freckles, and much less common in darker skinned people.

They initially tend to grow outwards rather than downwards, so don't pose a problem. However, if they grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin, they can spread to other parts of the body.

Therefore, you should see your GP if you have a mole that's getting bigger, particularly if it has an irregular edge.

Nodular melanoma

Nodular melanomas are a faster-developing type of melanoma that can quickly grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin if not removed.

Nodular melanomas usually appear as a changing lump on the skin which might be black to red in colour. They often grow on previously normal skin and most commonly occur on the head and neck, chest or back. Bleeding or oozing is a common symptom.

Lentigo maligna melanoma

Around one in 10 melanomas (10%) are lentigo maligna melanomas. They most commonly affect older people, particularly those who've spent a lot of time outdoors. They develop slowly over a number of years and appear in areas that are often exposed to the sun, such as the face.

To start with, lentigo maligna melanomas are flat and develop sideways in the surface layers of skin. They look like a freckle but they're usually larger, darker and stand out more than a normal freckle. They can gradually get bigger and may change shape. At a later stage, they may grow downwards into the deeper layers of skin and can form lumps (nodules).

Acral lentiginous melanoma 

Acral lentiginous melanomas are a rare type of melanoma that usually occur on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. They can also sometimes develop around a nail, most commonly the thumbnail or big toenail.

Acral lentiginous melanomas are the most common type of melanoma in people with dark skin, but they can occur in people with any skin type.

Amelanotic melanoma

Amelanotic melanomas are also rare, accounting for about 5 in 100 melanomas (5%). They usually have little or no colour, but may occasionally be pink or red, or have light brown or grey edges.

Cancer Research UK has more information about the different types of melanoma.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma is caused by skin cells that begin to develop abnormally. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is thought to cause most melanomas, but there's evidence to suggest that some may result from sunbed exposure. The type of sun exposure that causes melanoma is sudden intense exposure – for example, while on holiday, which leads to sunburn.

Certain things can increase your chances of developing melanoma, such as having:

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

Read more about the causes of melanoma.

Who's affected 

Excluding non-melanoma, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Around 13,500 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year.

More than a quarter of skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50, which is unusually early compared to most other types of cancer.

Over recent years, skin cancer has become much more common in the UK. This is thought to be the result of increased exposure to intense sunlight while on holiday abroad.

More than 2,000 people die every year in the UK from melanoma.

Diagnosing melanoma

See your GP if you notice any change to your moles. They'll refer you to a specialist clinic or hospital if they think you have melanoma.

In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed and closely examined to see whether it's cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. A biopsy usually involves removing a small tissue sample. However, in cases of melanoma, the whole thing is usually removed from the beginning.

You may also have a test to check if melanoma has spread to the lymph glands (nodes). This is known as a sentinel node biopsy.

Read more about diagnosing melanoma.

Treating melanoma

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.

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 that target specific genetic changes in the melanoma, such as BRAF inhibitors, or medicines that boost the body's immune responses to the melanoma (so-called checkpoint therapies).

Read more about treating melanoma.

Once you've had melanoma, there's a chance it may return. This risk is increased if your cancer was more advanced or widespread.

If your cancer team feels there's a significant risk of your melanoma returning, you'll need regular check-ups to monitor your health. You'll also be taught how to examine your skin and lymph nodes to help detect melanoma if it returns.

Preventing melanoma

Melanoma isn't always preventable, but you can reduce your chances of developing it by avoiding getting sunburned (even going pink in the sun).

Most people get burnt while abroad on holiday or in the UK in the summer while doing outdoor activities, such as gardening, sunbathing or playing cricket.

On these occasions you need to be really careful, particularly if you have pale skin and many moles. You can help protect yourself from sun damage by using sunscreen and dressing sensibly in the sun. Sunbeds and sunlamps should be avoided.

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

Read more about sunscreen and sun safety.



Further information on skin cancer (melanoma)

Information Prescription Service

To access the Information Prescription Service and the national cancer information pathway for skin cancer (melanoma) please click on the link below. Then click on 'Specialist information from our charity partners'

www.nhs.uk

Macmillan Cancer Support Website

www.macmillan.org.uk

Cancer Research UK Website

www.cancerresearchuk.org

Further Information

Visit or phone a local cancer information centre

There are several cancer information and support centres in Essex Cancer Network where anyone affected by cancer can be sure of a warm welcome and high quality, accurate, evidence-based information:

Basildon Hospital Macmillan Info and Support Centre, Outpatients Dept, Basildon Hospital, staffed Monday 2pm - Friday 12.30pm,tel: 0845 155 3111 extension 4908

Macmillan Info and Support Centre,Essex County Hospital, Outpatients Dept, Monday - Friday office hours, tel: 01206 747474

Information Resource Service, St Luke's House, Corringham,Thurrock, Monday to Friday office hours, tel: 01375 648170

Lantern Suite, Farleigh Hospice,Chelmsford, Monday to Friday office hours, tel: 01245 457418

Hospice Outreach Project Information Bus, Farleigh Hospice, covers the Chelmsford area. Contact Farleigh Hospice as above

For more information, please contact the service direct.

 

Visit your local library in Essex Cancer Network

Essex, Southend and Thurrock library services have worked in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support and the Essex Cancer Network to establish collections of quality assured information books and pamphlets about cancer. These can be accessed at any library: just ask. Additionally some staff at libraries have been trained to help patients use the Information Prescription Service.

Contact Macmillan Cancer Support Helplines

If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just someone to talk to, call free, Monday to Friday 9am - 8pm (interpretation service available) tel: 0808 808 0000

For financial queries tel: 0808 808 2232

 

Remember: Stay safe online when looking for support!

Internet chat rooms and message forums can be valuable sources of support and comfort, enabling you to meet others in the same position. However, there is potential for abuse - please read these guidelines before you set off to explore...

Click here to download the draft guidelines

 

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