Melanoma is a rare form of skin cancer that only makes up 1% of overall skin cancers. However, it is a particularly aggressive form, which it is why it’s important to recognize symptoms and know your personal risk for melanoma. Formed in the melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin, which give the skin and hair its pigment, melanoma can form on the skin, the scalp, the nails, and the soles of the feet, as well as in the eyes and mucous membranes. It is most commonly caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, such as from prolonged tanning outdoors and in tanning beds. Risk factors can include numerous moles, peeling sunburns or multiple severe sunburns in childhood, and fair complexions, and risk increases with age. 

Less commonly, melanoma can run in families. For example, there is an association between BRCA mutations and melanoma, specifically BRCA2 mutations. While the average man or woman is at 1-2% risk for melanoma, BRCA2 carriers have a 3-5% lifetime risk; though BRCA1 carriers have no specially increased risk. If you have a family history of melanoma, or even non-melanoma skin conditions, you should consider making an appointment with a dermatologist for a skin check exam and to begin annual screenings. It may also worth discussing genetic testing with your physician.

Symptoms to be aware of include spots and moles on the skin that seem new or that have changed in size, shape, or color. recommends the ABCDE rule with moles and spots on the skin, where you: watch for Asymmetry, note if the Border is irregular or unusual, see if Color appears to change or be inconsistent, keep track of Diameter in case a spot grows, and keep note of whether it is Evolving and in what way. Also visit your dermatologist if there are wounds or sores that don’t heal, unusual pigmentation or redness, or changes in sensation or texture of a particular spot, mole, or bump.

Comprehensive centers like the Basser Center and Penn Medicine’s Tara Miller Melanoma Center bring together different types of physicians to assess and treat melanoma. If you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma, consider both genetic testing and informing your family members that you have a cancer that could potentially be hereditary. 

If you think you’re at risk, educate yourself and your family on the symptoms of melanoma. Avoid tanning or lengthy exposure to the sun, and wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Give yourself monthly skin exams and consult with your dermatologist on how often you should schedule screening appointments.

Learn more about melanoma through Penn Medicine, Oncolink, and the Melanoma Research Foundation.