Melanoma: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2017

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Melanoma. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

About the skin

The skin is the largest organ in the body. It protects against infection and injury and helps regulate body temperature. The skin also stores water and fat and produces vitamin D.

The skin is made up of 3 main layers:

  • Epidermis: the outer layer of skin

  • Dermis: the inner layer of skin

  • Hypodermis: the deep layer of fat

See the Medical Illustrations section for a drawing of these layers.

About melanoma

The deepest layer of the epidermis, located just above the dermis, contains cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce the skin’s pigment or color. Melanoma begins when healthy melanocytes change and grow out of control, forming a cancerous tumor. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes, melanoma develops from a normal mole a person already has on their skin. When this happens, the mole will undergo changes that usually can be seen, such as changes in shape, size, color, or the border of the mole (see also Symptoms and Signs).

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, including the head and neck, the skin under the fingernails, the genitals, and even the soles of the feet or palms of the hands. Melanoma may not be colored like a mole. It may have no color or be slightly red, which is called amelanotic melanoma.

When found early, melanoma can often be cured with surgery. However, melanoma is 1 of the most serious forms of skin cancer. It can grow deep into the skin, called invasive melanoma. It can also invade lymph nodes and blood vessels and spread to distant parts of the body.

This section focuses on cutaneous melanoma, which is melanoma that first develops in the skin. Melanoma can also develop in the mucous membranes that line the mouth, the gastrointestinal tract, a woman’s vagina, and other locations around the body. Melanoma may also develop in the eye. Learn more about melanoma diagnosed in other parts of the body in these separate sections:

For information about other types of skin cancer, review the section on non-melanoma skin cancers.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to this type of cancer. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert in this type of cancer that provides basic information and areas of research.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.