What Causes Melanoma?

Cancer starts when a gene in a cell mutates (changes). The body can often correct mutations, but if it doesn’t, the mutation creates an abnormal protein or prevents one from forming, which in turn causes a cell to multiply uncontrollably and become cancerous.

Melanoma develops when melanocytes (the cells that produce pigment), mutate, multiply, and become cancerous.

But What Causes Mutations in the First Place?

There are two basic types of genetic mutations: acquired and germline.

Acquired mutations are the most common cause of cancer. They occur from damage to genes in a particular cell during a person’s life. Cancer that occurs because of acquired mutations is called sporadic cancer.[1]

In the case of melanoma, overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the most common factor that causes a mutation. UV radiation is a major risk factor for melanoma. Learn more about UV exposure as a risk factor melanoma here.

Germline mutations are less common than acquired mutations, and they occur in a sperm cell or egg cell. This mutation passes directly from parent to child at conception. Cancer caused by germline mutations is called inherited cancer.[1] Inherited, or familial, melanoma is rare; only 1-2% of people are considered to have familial melanoma. Learn more about family history as a risk factor for melanoma here.

What Screening Tests Are Available?

The most important screening test for melanoma is a skin examination because the vast majority of cutaneous melanomas are visible on the skin. Generally speaking, it is recommended that everyone get annual skin checks with a healthcare provider who works in the dermatology field. Your doctor may recommend something called Mole Mapping, or a similar system by which you can track changes to moles and other lesions through periodic photographs. Additionally, you should be examining your skin routinely at home. Because you see your skin every single day, you are the most likely person to notice any changes to it. At least once a month—we suggest after you get out of the shower—you should do a self-check of your skin, using the ABCDE’s as a guide, and look for any itching or bleeding moles or lesions. Also look for any spots that don’t appear like others on your skin—these are called “Ugly Ducklings.” The prognosis for melanoma is best when it is found early, making skin examinations very important.

If you have a family and/or personal history of melanoma, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about whether genetic testing would be beneficial.


[1] https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/cancer-basics/genetics/genetics-cancer