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Melanoma

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in melanocyte cells. These cells are responsible for making melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour.

To learn more about melanoma, visit the Canadian Cancer Society.

What’s on this Page

You will find Cancer Care Ontario information, resources and tools for:

  • patients, families and caregivers
  • anyone interested in melanoma
  • healthcare providers

You will also find links to other organizations that provide information related to melanoma.

Prevention

There are several things you can do to lower your risk of melanoma:

Be Safe in the Sun

The most important risk factor for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. People who spend a lot of time in the sun are more likely to get melanoma than people who spend little time in the sun.

Studies have shown that frequent sunburns – even if they happened years ago when you were a child or teenager – raise the risk of melanoma.

People who don’t tan easily in the sun or who have fair-coloured skin or light-coloured eyes are more likely to get UV radiation damage. Although melanoma is somewhat rare among people with very dark skin, they are not immune. Melanoma can happen in people with darker skin and may be harder to find early. Even if your natural skin colour is dark, it’s important to protect yourself from UV radiation.

No sunscreen can protect you 100% from UV radiation. Always use sunscreen, and wear protective clothing or find shade.

Don’t Use Tanning Beds or Sunlamps

Tanning equipment like tanning beds or lamps give off the same damaging UVA and UVB rays as the sun. As a result, people who use tanning equipment have at least a 20% increased risk of melanoma.

In Ontario, the Skin Cancer Prevention Act (Tanning Beds), 2013 banned the sale and marketing of tanning services to people under 18 years of age.

Know Your Skin

It’s important to know your skin. Check your skin regularly to look for warning signs such as:

  • change in the shape, colour, size or surface of a birthmark or mole
  • a sore that doesn’t heal
  • any patch of skin that bleeds, oozes, swells, itches or becomes red and bumpy

It’s a good idea to check your moles regularly so you will know if they start to change. Use the ABCDE system to help you identify possible signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: if you were to draw a line through the mole or growth, the 2 halves wouldn’t match (e.g., one half is a different shape or colour than the other half).
  • Borders: the edges are irregular, scalloped or notched.
  • Colour: there may be a mixture of different colours, such as shades of tan, brown or black, or sometimes even white, red or blue within the same mole, sore, lump or growth.
  • Diameter: keep an eye out for any spot that grows larger, particularly if it is bigger than 6 millimetres (about ¼ inch) in diameter.
  • Evolving: the border, colour, elevation, shape or diameter changes or there is a new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting.

If you notice any change or new development, consult your doctor or nurse practitioner.

Be Aware of Products that Increase Sun Sensitivity

Some medications or products can make your skin more sensitive to the sun (photosensitivity). When you start a new prescription, over-the-counter medication or herbal remedy, read the product information and talk with your pharmacist. Ask if this product has been reported to make people more sensitive to the sun. If it has, you should be careful to protect yourself whenever you are in the sun.

Transplant patients have special sun protection needs. You can learn more at the Kidney Foundation of Canada.

Check If You Are High Risk

Examples of factors that may put you at higher than average risk include:

  • a family history of melanoma, for example, a first-degree “blood” relative such as a mother, father, brother, sister or child with a history of melanoma
  • a personal history of basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma of the skin (non-melanoma skin cancer)
  • taking medications that weaken the body’s immune response (immunosuppressive therapy) or make skin more sensitive to the sun (photosensitivity)

Diagnosis

During diagnosis, a person may need many tests to confirm the cancer. Waiting for test results to come back can be stressful. Talk to your doctor about managing stress during this difficult time. 

For information about diagnostic tests for melanoma, visit the Canadian Cancer Society.

Treatment

Treatment for melanoma will depend on:

  • the type of cancer
  • the stage of cancer
  • which treatments and services the person chooses to have

Treatments may include:

  • surgery
  • drug therapy (chemotherapy)
  • radiation therapy
  • other treatment options
  • clinical drug trials

To learn more about types of melanoma treatment, you can also visit the Canadian Cancer Society.

Drug Therapy Information

You can learn more about specific cancer drugs using our patient information sheets. These provide information about cancer drug therapies, including what they are used for and how to manage side effects. To find patient information sheets, go to the Drugs page.

You can also see About Chemotherapy for general information about cancer drug therapy.

Quitting Smoking Can Help Your Treatment

It’s never too late to quit smoking. Whether you are scheduled to have surgery, radiation treatment or chemotherapy, quitting smoking can help your treatment work better. It also can reduce the chance of your cancer coming back or getting another form of cancer. For more information and resources, see Benefits of Quitting Smoking for People with Cancer.

Managing Symptoms and Side Effects

People with cancer may have symptoms related to their cancer or as a side effect of treatment.

Our symptom management guides explain:

  • how to recognize symptoms
  • what to do and what not to do
  • when to contact the person’s healthcare team

The guides are available for patients and for healthcare providers. Each patient guide also comes with links to helpful resources like courses, books, videos and worksheets.

Our side effect information sheets offer tips for people going through side effects from chemotherapy treatment.

If you are a person with cancer, please remember that it’s important to discuss any symptoms or concerns with your healthcare team.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are scientific studies that test the safety and effectiveness of a medical treatment. Find clinical trials in Canada.

Palliative Care

Palliative care supports people with life-threatening illness and their families. The goal of this care is to relieve suffering so people can have the best possible quality of life. Palliative care should start when a person is diagnosed with a serious illness.

To learn more, go to the Palliative Care page.

After Treatment

When treatment ends, a person moves into a new phase of their cancer experience. For many patients, a lot of the after-treatment care will be given by healthcare providers in the community, like a family doctor or nurse practitioner.

Follow-Up Care

Follow-up care is the care given after active treatment for melanoma is over. It focuses on:

  • helping the person recover from the cancer and treatments
  • finding cancer early if it comes back

To learn more about follow-up care, visit the Canadian Cancer Society.

Managing Ongoing Symptoms

A person may have symptoms from cancer for months or years after treatment has ended. These are called long-term effects or late effects.

If you have ongoing symptoms after being treated for cancer, you can find information on how to manage them in our Symptom and Side Effect Management guides.

To better understand the late or long-term effects of cancer treatment, visit the Canadian Cancer Society for a helpful overview.

End-of-Life Care

Each person has a different experience during their final months and days of life. Their symptoms may change as their illness continues, and their needs for information and support will be unique. Family members will also have questions, concerns and needs of their own.

If you are helping a family member through their final months of life, talk to your healthcare team about your questions and concerns as they come up. They can give you information and resources to support you and your family, and help you make decisions and plan for end-of-life care.

For more information, go to the Palliative Care page.

Facts

  • If melanoma is discovered early, it may be very treatable. But unlike other skin cancers, melanoma has a much higher potential of spreading throughout the body.
  • In 2013, 3,409 cases of melanoma were diagnosed in Ontario, making it the 7th most common cancer. There were also 519 deaths from melanoma, making it the 17th leading cause of cancer death.
  • The rate of melanoma cases and deaths have been going up since the early 1980s.
  • Survival is high for melanoma. People diagnosed with this cancer are 86.6% as likely to survive 5 years after diagnosis as similar people in the general population.