Healthy Living

What Does Melanoma Look Like?

What Does Melanoma Look Like?

Key Takeaways

  • The early stages of melanoma often resemble ordinary moles
  • Melanoma is a very serious cancer
  • Early detection is the key to successful treatment

Most people have at least a few moles since they are common markings on the skin. Unfortunately, the signs of melanoma can be easily mistaken for moles until the disease progresses. Everyone should be familiar with the distinguishing characteristics of melanoma, as this knowledge can save lives. If you want to help yourself and others avoid melanoma, it is important to properly monitor the skin for any unusual moles. This will be easier to do after reading the following article. Melanoma can be more serious than the other forms of skin cancer because it has the ability to spread to other parts of the body, causing serious illness and death.

Melanoma is a type of cancer that can arise from melanocytes, or cells that produce the pigment (melanin)­­ responsible for skin color. As moles are also formed from melanocytes, most lesions that are caused by melanoma look like moles. Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size, or feel of an existing mole. However, melanoma may also appear as a new mole. People should thus report to their doctor if they notice any changes on their skin. The only way to diagnose melanoma is to remove the tissue and diagnose it for cancer cells. If caught early, most melanomas can be cured with relatively minor surgery.

Why is it Important to Detect Melanoma Early?

It is very important to detect melanoma as soon as possible because the resulting lesions develop and become malignant after a short period of time. They can, however, be removed if they are found throughout the early stages of the disease. Early on, melanoma lesions are shallow, so removal can result in the complete eradication of the cancer. In fact, early-stage melanoma may be one of the only types of cancer that can be removed in a doctor’s office without undergoing surgery or chemotherapy.

It is important to note that melanoma is a common type of cancer. Excessive sun exposure, fair skin, and having too many moles are risk factors for melanoma that are frequently found in most individuals. Therefore, it is never too early to learn the warning signs of melanoma. If melanoma is ignored and left to grow on its own, it can rapidly metastasize to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. Late-stage melanoma is incredibly difficult to treat, so early detection is key.   

How to Distinguish Melanoma from Moles

The only way to identify a harmless mole from cancerous melanoma is by viewing both under a microscope. However, moles and suspected melanoma-lesions have key differences that can be seen and identified by anyone. A changing spot may be a problem, but not every change in the mole may mean cancer. Sometimes, a mole may appear and then get bigger or become raised but still be only a mole. It is normal for many moles to start flat and dark, become raised and dark, and then later lose much of their color. This process takes many years.


The best way to determine if a mole is actually melanoma is the mnemonic ‘ABCDE’ way. This method helps to keep in mind the warning signs of melanoma. Note that some cases may only exhibit one or two of the following warning signs.

‘A’ Stands for Asymmetry

Normal moles are symmetrical which means that if they are split evenly, a normal mole will appear the same on both halves. If you draw a line through the middle, the two sides will match. If the sides match, this indicates that the mole is symmetrical. However, if you draw a line through the mole and the two halves do not match it indicates that the mole is asymmetrical, which is a warning sign for melanoma. One must always keep in mind that melanoma lesions can vary in shape and size, and often do not pass the "two halves" test.

‘B’ Stands for Border

If a mole has well-defined borders, it is probably non-cancerous. Melanoma lesions usually have poorly-defined or fading borders. If observed carefully, one may notice that a benign mole has smooth, even borders. This is unlike melanomas, whose borders at an early stage tend to be uneven. The edges in such melanomas may be scalloped or notched.

‘C' Stands for Color

Normal moles tend to have a single shade of color – usually a single shade of brown, while melanoma lesions do not. Having a variety of colors is another warning signal of developing melanoma. In this case, a number of different shades of brown, tan, or black would appear on the skin and they may further change into red, white, or blue. Hence, a mole that has two or more colors may be cancerous.

‘D’ Stands for Diameter

Benign moles usually have a smaller diameter than malignant ones. Melanomas usually are larger in diameter than a speck of grain or sugar, but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected. Later, they may grow into large bulging lesions. Melanoma lesions are larger than most normal moles. For easier reference, a mole larger than a pencil eraser should always be inspected more closely by a doctor.

‘E’ Stands for Evolving

Normal moles usually do not change, even throughout a person's whole life. Melanoma lesions typically evolve and change over time. If you find that a mole has changed color, size, or appearance, it is important to have it checked right away as any change, be it in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait can indicate something serious. Any new symptoms such as bleeding, itching, or crusting may point to danger that may lead to serious ill-effects and health hazards as well.

A person must always have their mole checked if it bleeds, forms crusts, or becomes itchy. Anyone who lives in an area with lots of sunshine, has a family history of melanoma, has a weak immune system, or frequently uses tanning booths should be aware that they are at an increased risk for melanoma. If one or more of these risk factors apply to you, you can save your life by learning to identify suspicious moles and being aware of the signs of melanoma.