At UW Health, we provide expert care for melanoma and skin cancer. If untreated, certain skin cancers can spread to your organs and bones. When caught early, they can be treated and cured with surgery.
In partnership with UW dermatologists, the melanoma and skin cancer program at the UW Carbone Cancer Center specializes in diagnosing skin cancer early. We also excel at treating advanced skin cancer.
Causes and risks
Know the causes and risks for melanoma and skin cancer
You have an increased risk of getting melanoma from spending too much time in the sun. Excess UV radiation can cause normal skin cells to become abnormal. The damaged skin cells can then grow out of control and attack nearby tissues.
Your skin tone and family history might also put you at risk for melanoma. Risk factors include:
Family history of melanoma
Types of skin cancers
Basal cell carcinoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma
Basal and squamous cells are located in the top layer of skin. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. The most common area of the body where basal cell carcinoma develops is the face, head and neck, which are frequently exposed to the sun. This type of skin cancer grows very slowly and rarely spreads. Individuals who have had basal cell carcinoma are most likely to have new spots develop in other places. If left untreated, the cancer can grow into other areas, such as the tissues beneath the skin.
Like basal cells, squamous cells cancers are relatively common. Squamous cell cancers appear on areas of the body that are often exposed to the sun, including the lips and backs of the hands. Unlike basal cells, squamous cell cancers tend to spread to other parts of the body, but they can usually be removed completely.
Ocular melanoma (cancer in the eye)
While ocular melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults, it is a rare cancer. Eye melanomas develop inside the eye and cannot be seen when you look in a mirror. Because they don’t cause any early signs or symptoms, it’s important to have a routine eye exam.
Merkel cell carcinoma
Merkel cell carcinoma, or MCC, is a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer that has a high risk of returning. Merkel cells are located deep in the top layer of skin. MCC tumors often appear on areas of the body that are exposed to the sun, such as the forehead, arms or legs. Merkel cell carcinoma is more deadly than melanoma, but can often be treated successfully with early detection.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Melanoma and skin cancer
A change in the color, shape or size of a mole can be a sign of melanoma. Melanomas often appear:
At least ¼ inch or larger
Brown or black
Flat with uneven edges
Irregular or asymmetrical in shape
A melanoma can be itchy, sore and bleed. Alternatively, you might not experience any symptoms.
Moles can often appear on the upper back of both men and women. They are also common on women's legs.
Diagnosing and staging melanoma
Your doctor checks your skin. If your care team suspects a melanoma, we perform a biopsy. We take a small sample of tissue from the suspected melanoma, and a pathologist studies the tissue to look for cancer cells.
If the biopsy shows melanoma, you will likely be referred to see a surgeon. You might need more tests to see if the cancer has spread. These include imaging scans, such as CT, MRI or PET.
Treatments and research
How we treat, prevent and research melanoma
Your care team will find the best treatment for your melanoma. For early-stage melanoma, surgery to remove the cancer cells might be the only treatment you need. Surgery also could include a sentinel lymph node biopsy to determine if melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes.
Other treatments might be necessary if the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body or is advanced. These include:
At UW Health, our skin cancer team meets regularly in a specialized Tumor Board to discuss complex melanoma and other advanced skin cancer cases. Bringing together an expert team from across different programs — including oncology, ophthalmology and plastic surgery, among others — ensures patients receive the best possible care.
Take steps to prevent melanoma
You can prevent melanoma by protecting yourself whenever you are in the sun, no matter your skin tone. Follow these tips:
Minimize sun exposure between 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Check your skin often for odd marks, moles or sores that will not heal
Do not sunbathe or use tanning salons
Get regular skin checks from a dermatologist
Reapply sunscreen every two hours when you are outside
Use extra sun protection when near the water, at high elevation or in tropical climates
Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 during times of sun exposure
Use sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB radiation
Wear sun-protective clothing outside, like a hat to shade your scalp and face
Clinical trials: Advancing melanoma care with research
The melanoma doctors and scientists at UW Health work to improve skin cancer care for you. Our Melanoma Disease-Oriented Team studies new diagnostic tools and treatments and provides multispecialty care for patients. We also lead clinical trials.