What is melanoma and what steps can I take to protect myself?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in cells called melanocytes that are spread throughout the lower part of the epidermis.

When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce more pigment, causing the skin to darken. Sometimes melanocytes grow in a cluster. Noncancerous clusters are called moles, and most people have between 10 and 40 of these brown, tan or black areas on the skin. Moles can be flat or raised. They are usually round or oval and smaller than a pencil eraser. They may be present at birth or appear later.

Melanoma occurs when melanocytes become abnormal, dividing without control or order.

According to the National Cancer Institute, changes in the size, shape, color or feel of a mole may indicate a first sign of melanoma. Watch for the following ABCDE signs:

Asymmetry: The two halves do not match.

Border: The border is ragged, blurred and/or irregular.

Color: The color is uneven or the pigment has spread to the surrounding skin. Also if shades of brown, tan or black and areas of white, grey, red, pink or blue are visible.

Diameter: Melanomas are usually diagnosed when larger than ¼ inch or 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser).

Evolving: If you have mole that has changed shape, size or color.

Some melanomas have all of the above features, while others may just have one or two. Melanomas are not usually painful, but may itch, ooze, bleed or form fine scales.

It is important to catch melanoma in its early stages so that cancer cells do not invade healthy tissue.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, during an exam in a private setting, a medical professional, a dermatologist or a member of the dermatologist’s team (resident, nurse, physician assistant, etc.) will visually inspect your body. In a public setting, the dermatologist or team member might just inspect arms, legs, face, neck or any other area of the body already exposed.

If you are concerned about a mole or other skin change, it is important to consult with your doctor and have an examination by a dermatologist for proper diagnosis.

For more information contact Courtney Britton, librarian at Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge at (225) 927-2273, cbritton@cancerservices.org , or visit the Education Center at 550 Lobdell Ave., Baton Rouge.

Internet Resources:

American Academy of Dermatology


National Cancer Institute: Skin Cancer Screening


National Cancer Institute: What You Need to Know about Melanoma:


This column is presented as a service by Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, a United Way affiliate.