Melanoma Symptoms & Diagnosis | MedStar Health

We combine expertise across several specialties to determine the best treatment options for your melanoma, no matter how early or advanced.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the deep skin layers. Sometimes it's called malignant melanoma or cutaneous melanoma. It's one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer, but thanks to recent advances, we can now detect it early when it is more easily curable. If you suspect this type of cancer, we'll work quickly to determine the right next steps for you.

At MedStar Health, we take a multidisciplinary approach to caring for patients with melanoma skin cancer, involving doctors with decades of experience in using imaging, pathology, surgery, medicine, and radiation to diagnose and treat skin cancer. Whether you have early-stage skin cancer or metastatic melanoma, we'll review your case in a multidisciplinary tumor board. This close collaboration among several doctors and other healthcare providers ensures you receive the most accurate diagnosis and best treatment recommendations. That's because your care plan:

  • Is based on several opinions for your specific case without requiring you to travel to different specialists

  • Considers the latest advances in all of the different treatment modalities, including clinical trials, as recommended by each doctor with sub-specialized training in their specific fields

  • May involve plastic surgeons, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, and others who are also here to support you with whatever needs arise .

In addition, we partner with Washington, D.C.’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. As a result, our skin cancer doctors are finding new, better ways to treat this type of cancer, including the latest surgical techniques and innovative immunotherapies only available in clinical trials. Although a cancer diagnosis can feel overwhelming, you can be confident and at ease knowing that we're here to guide you through the best possible treatment options, including lifelong follow-up care.

Symptoms and risk factors

Know the "ABCDEs of melanoma."

Many people have normal moles; most of the time, they're harmless. However, some types of moles can be a sign of melanoma or skin cancer. If the mole has any characteristics of what we call the “ABCDEs of melanoma,” you should be sure to show it to your doctor:

  • Asymmetry: The mole's shape is different on one side than it is on the other.

  • Borders: The edges of the mole don't form a recognizable shape.

  • Color: The mole is not one solid color. Instead, it may be different shades of light or dark brown, black, white, or red.

  • Diameter: The mole grows in size.

  • Evolving: The mole changes in size or color.

In addition, melanoma symptoms may include irritation or bleeding. If you're concerned about any unusual change to your skin, don't delay in telling your doctor.

Too much UV exposure is the most common risk factor associated with melanoma.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun or indoor tanning beds can cause short- and long-term damage to the skin. As a result, excessive UV radiation exposure can significantly increase your risk of melanoma. However, some people develop skin cancer in parts of the body that aren't typically exposed to the sun, including the bottom of the feet. We don't yet know why this is, but several other risk factors can elevate your chances of getting this cancer, in addition to UV exposure. These may include:

  • Getting older, as the effects of the sun compound

  • Having a high number of moles

  • A family or personal history of skin cancer

  • A history of bad sunburns, especially in your youth

If you have fair skin, you may also be at a greater risk for developing melanoma. However, people with naturally darker complexions can also get this cancer, so everyone should practice skin cancer prevention.

Screening and prevention

People of all skin types and tones should wear sunscreen.

Regardless of how light or dark your complexion is, you can lower your risk by taking the following precautions while in the sun:

  • Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher

  • Wearing sun-blocking clothing, hats, and sunglasses

  • Seeking shade, especially during peak hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)


Early detection is key for successful treatment.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that patients who are at average risk of skin cancer perform annual skin checks to look for any new or unusual changes to their skin. If you have a high risk of developing skin cancer, or you notice specific signs & symptoms, talk to a MedStar Health dermatologist to determine if and how frequently you should get your skin examined.

Diagnosis

Our pathologists and experts focus on examining and diagnosing melanoma and other skin cancers, so you can be assured that you have the right diagnosis the first time.

If you notice a cancerous skin mole or spot, we'll work quickly to identify whether or not it's cancerous. This typically happens during an appointment with your dermatologist, who will perform a comprehensive skin exam. If they need to perform a biopsy, they will use a local injection to numb the area before removing a small sample of tissue. A dermatopathologist trained to spot and diagnose skin cancer under a microscope will analyze the skin cells to determine if they are cancerous. Because our pathologists have this specialization, you can expect your diagnosis to be precise, leading to the most effective treatment options.

If your doctor determines you have cancer, the next step will be determining the melanoma stage and type. Staging tells us how early or advanced the cancer is on a scale from zero to four. The higher the number, the deeper the cancer has grown and the more it has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. The stage will affect what types of skin cancer treatments we will use.

Types of cancer

There are four main ways melanoma develops.

Melanoma is one type of skin cancer and it affects people in several different ways, including:.

  • Superficial spreading melanoma: This common type appears as a smooth shape with uneven borders. It can be bluish or brownish, and it grows deeper over time.

  • Lentigo maligna and lentigo maligna melanoma: These develop in older adults and appear as flat and brown on the arms, face, and neck. They can cause blotchy spots and take longer to spread.

  • Nodular melanoma: This is the second most common type, and one of the most aggressive. It often looks bumpy and can either be black, blue, red, or even colorless.

  • Acral lentiginous melanoma: This type occurs on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet and isn't related to UV exposure.

Although all of these are serious skin cancers, they can almost always be cured when detected early. Learn more in the pictures of melanoma below.

Looking for expert cancer care?

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high quality care, second opinions and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

Our locations

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MedStar Health: Dermatology at Chevy Chase

5530 Wisconsin Ave
The Chevy Chase Bldg.
Ste. 730
Chevy Chase, MD 20815

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Lafayette Centre

1133 21st St. NW
Building 2
8th Floor
Washington, D.C., 20036

MedStar Health: Dermatology at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

3800 Reservoir Rd. NW
Pasquerilla Health Center
1st Floor
Washington, D.C., 20007

MedStar Health: Dermatology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center

110 Irving St. NW
Suite 1A50A
Washington, D.C., 20010

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Tenleytown

4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW
4th Floor
Washington, D.C., 20016

MedStar Health: Dermatology in Washington D.C.

106 Irving St. NW
Physician's Office Bldg. South
Ste. 410
Washington, D.C., 20010