This information is useful for children and adults
A senior couple walks outside.
Why Yale Medicine?
  • We have specialized expertise in diagnosing melanoma.
  • We are widely recognized for our success in treating skin cancers.
  • We use advanced surgical and laser techniques that are not widely accessible.

Too much time in the sun or a tanning booth in your youth might make you worry about skin cancer, especially the most serious form called melanoma. 

It is a type of skin cancer that originates in the pigment-producing cells of the epidermis called melanocytes. Of the three most common types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most dangerous. It's much more likely than basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma to spread.  

Melanoma accounts for only one percent of skin cancer cases but causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, about 76,000 new cases of melanoma are expected to be diagnosed this year, affecting more men than women, and it claims about 10,000 lives each year. On top of that, the rates of melanoma have been rising for at least 30 years.  

But here's the silver lining: “This serious cancer can be—and should be—diagnosed early, when it is usually completely curable,” says David J. Leffell, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist, who is the chief of the Dermatologic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology. He is also a professor of dermatology, plastic surgery and otolaryngology at Yale School of Medicine. 

At Yale Medicine, we are proven experts in diagnosing and treating melanoma. “Knowing more about melanoma in its earliest stage can save your life or the life of a loved one,” says Dr. Leffell.

As with other types of skin cancer, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, from the sun or tanning beds, is a major risk factor for melanoma. Skin color matters, too. There's an inverse relationship between the amount of pigment in a person's skin and his or her risk of melanoma. Importantly, it is estimated that about 40 percent of melanomas are not UV related.

Overall, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about one in 40 for white people, one in 200 for Hispanic people and one in 1,000 for black people. 

There's also a genetic component, which involves abnormalities in the gene that directs the body's production of the protective skin pigment known as melanin. Researchers have found that people who have abnormalities in this gene and have red hair and fair skin have a fourfold increased melanoma risk. About 10 percent of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease (meaning that a parent, brother, sister or child has melanoma). 

The risk of melanoma increases as people age, says Dr. Leffell says. The average age at diagnosis is 62 but, notes Dr. Leffell, melanoma occurs in those under 30, too, and it is one of the most common cancers in young adults—especially young women. (Melanoma that runs in families may occur at a younger age.) 

According to Dr. Leffell, here are common risk factors: 

  • Family history of melanoma
  • Personal history of melanoma or atypical (dysplastic) moles
  • Fair skin
  • A tendency to burn rather than tan
  • Sensitivity to the sun
  • Freckles
  • Red/blond/light brown hair
  • Green/gray/blue eyes
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • New or changing moles