What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in melanocytes. These are the cells that make melanin, which gives skin its colour, also called pigment. If the melanocytes are somehow damaged they may multiply uncontrollably and develop into a lump called a tumour. Damage to the cells is usually caused by UV (ultra violet) radiation from sunlight and/or sunbeds.

All melanomas are malignant (cancerous). If the melanoma is not treated it may spread into the surrounding tissues. It could also spread (metastasise) throughout the body in the blood stream or the lymphatic system. This is advanced melanoma. If the melanoma is found and treated early enough it can be cured. 80% of people are cured with surgery but 20% will die because of advanced melanoma. Cancer Research UK reports that 2,285 people died from melanoma in 2016.

Melanocytes can also be found all over the body and the organs. So in rare cases melanoma can develop anywhere. However it is most common on the trunk, the main part of the body (not the head, arms or legs) of fair-skinned men and on the lower legs of fair-skinned women. In dark-skinned people it is most common on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and the skin under nails.

The number of new cases of melanoma in the UK is rising rapidly, quicker than any other cancer. There are about 15,000 new cases of melanoma every year and it is the 5th most common cancer in the UK. It is the most common form of cancer in young adults.

Advanced melanoma

Depending on the nature and 'stage' of the disease (see FAQs for a description of the stages), possible treatment options may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy (administering drugs) or immunotherapy (encouraging the body's immune system to identify and get rid of cancerous cells).

How do doctors decide which treatment to use?

There are several types of melanoma. They differ in their behaviour and in their response to the various treatments. This means that every melanoma must be fully assessed, identified and 'staged' in order to decide which treatment, or combination of treatments, is likely to be most effective.

Last updated: December 2019