Frequently asked questions about malignant melanomas

What are malignant melanomas?

Malignant melanomas are one type of skin cancer.

They can develop anywhere on the skin and also inside the mouth. They can develop in normal skin or where there is an existing skin mole.

The incidence of melanomas has increased over the past decades, which we think is because of increased exposure to the sun.

Because they can develop in existing benign moles, it is a good idea to keep an eye on your moles and seek medical advice if they change in size, shape, colour or start to bleed (see above).

Who is most at risk from developing melanoma skin cancer?

Anyone can develop a malignant melanoma. However, some people are more at risk then others. These risk factors include some things you can not change:

  • Being female (twice the incidence than in males)
  • Having fair skin with lots of freckles
  • Having lots of moles on your skin

And some risk factors that you can avoid:

  • Sunbathing, especially in the tropics
  • Having episodes of severe sunburn in the past.

The implications of these risk factors are that all people should avoid all sunburn (preferably) or (at least) excessive sunbathing, especially if they are in a higher risk group (eg a woman who is fair skinned and has lots of moles and people in her family who have had skin cancer).

Who is least likely to develop melanoma skin cancers?

Children rarely develop many moles before puberty and so are very unlikely to develop problem moles.
If you have a dark skin type, melanomas are rare but do occur (sometimes on the soles of the feet).

The advice about checking yourself for changes in moles and avoiding sun exposure and sunburn hold true for all people.

What types of melanoma are there and what does this mean?

There are several types of malignant melanoma including:

  • Lentigo maligna
    This not strictly a melanoma but an enlarging pigmented area (eg on the face), which carries a significant risk of turning into a melanoma. Doctors usually recommend its removal to prevent this and also to prevent it increasing in size.
  • Superficial spreading melanoma
    About 50% of all melanomas seen are superficial spreading melanomas. 'Superficial' doesn't mean they are not important but instead that they are found and grow on the 'top' layers of the body. They are usually found on the calf of a woman or the back of a man.
  • Lentigo maligna melanoma
    These are mostly seen in more senior patients. About 90% of them occur on the head and neck.
  • Nodular melanoma
    These can be raised blue to black nodules. They are most commonly found on the trunk of the body.

What will happen if I have malignant melanoma skin cancer?

If malignant melanoma is diagnosed and treated successfully and early enough, there is a very good chance of recovery.

This cancer behaves very differently from other skin cancers (see above) and if it is not successfully treated it can spread to other organs of your body and is very serious.

If you are diagnosed with any type of skin cancer, it is important to remember that you are not alone. You will be offered full support from the healthcare team at Addenbrooke's and in addition there are many local and national support groups and centres where you can gain advice and help with understanding and managing your condition.