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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. It develops in the skin cells called melanocytes and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun.

Rarely, melanomas can also start inside the eye or in a part of the skin or body that has never been exposed to the sun, such as mucous membranes (e.g. sinuses, digestive tract, genitals), the soles of the feet or palms of the hands, and under the nails.

Other types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). These are known as non-melanoma skin cancers or  keratinocyte cancers, and they are far more common than melanoma. However, melanoma is considered the most serious form of skin cancer because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, especially if not found early. The earlier melanoma is found, the more successful treatment is likely to be.

What are the main types of melanoma?

Melanoma of the skin is known as cutaneous melanoma. The main subtypes of cutaneous melanoma are:

Superficial spreading melanoma

How common is it?Makes up 55–60% of melanomas.
Who gets it?Most common type of melanoma in people under 40, but can occur at any age.
What does it look like?Can start as a new brown or black spot that grows on the skin, or as an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes size, colour or shape.
Where is it found?Can develop on any part of the body but especially the trunk.
How does it grow?Often grows slowly and becomes more dangerous when it invades the lower layer of the skin (dermis).

Nodular melanoma

How common is it?Makes up 10–15% of melanomas.
Who gets it?Most commonly found in people over 65.
What does it look like?Usually appears as a round, raised lump (nodule) on the skin that is pink, red, brown or black and feels firm to touch; may develop a crusty surface that bleeds easily.
Where is it found?Usually found on sun-damaged skin on the head and neck.
How does it grow?Fast-growing form of melanoma, spreading quickly into the lower layer of the skin (dermis).

Lentigo maligna melanoma

How common is it?Makes up 10–15% of melanomas.
Who gets it?Most people with this subtype are over 40.
What does it look like?Begins as a large coloured spot (lentigo maligna),
Where is it found?Mostly found on sun-damaged skin on the face, ears, neck or head.
How does it grow?May grow slowly and superficially over many years before it grows deeper into the skin.

Acral lentiginous melanoma

How common is it?Makes up 1–2% of melanomas.
Who gets it?Mostly affects people over 40.
What does it look like?Often appears as a colourless or lightly coloured area, may be mistaken for a stain, bruise or unusual wart; in the nails, can look like a long streak of pigment.
Where is it found?Most commonly found on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet, or under the fingernails or toenails.
How does it grow?Tends to grow slowly until it invades the lower layer of the skin (dermis).

Desmoplastic melanoma

How common is it?Makes up 1–2% of melanomas.
Who gets it?Mostly affects people over 60.
What does it look like?Starts as a firm, growing lump, often the same colour as your skin; may be mistaken for a scar and can be difficult to diagnose.
Where is it found?Mostly found on sun-damaged skin on the head or neck.
How does it grow?Tends to be slower to spread than other subtypes, but often diagnosed later.

Rarer types of melanoma

Some rarer types of melanoma start in other parts of the body. Mucosal melanoma can start in the tissues in the mouth, anus, urethra, vagina or nasal passages. Ocular melanoma can start inside the eye. Melanoma can also start in the central nervous system. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information about rarer types of melanoma.

How common is melanoma?

Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. Every year, about 16,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma in Australia. 

Melanoma is the second most common cancer in men and the third most common cancer in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers).

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Understanding Melanoma

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed January 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Robyn Saw, Surgical Oncologist, Melanoma Institute Australia, The University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Prof Bryan Burmeister, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Fraser Coast and Hervey Bay Hospital, QLD; Tamara Dawson, Consumer, Melanoma & Skin Cancer Advocacy Network; Prof Georgina Long, Co-Medical Director, Melanoma Institute Australia, and Chair, Melanoma Medical Oncology and Translational Research, Melanoma Institute Australia, The University of Sydney and Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; A/Prof Alexander Menzies, Medical Oncologist, Melanoma Institute Australia, The University of Sydney, Royal North Shore and Mater Hospitals, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Paige Preston, Chair, Cancer Council’s National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia; Prof H Peter Soyer, Chair in Dermatology and Director, Dermatology Research Centre, The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, and Director, Dermatology Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Julie Teraci, Clinical Nurse Consultant and Coordinator, WA Kirkbride Melanoma Advisory Service, WA.