You probably know that skin cancer usually appears as a mole-like growth on the skin. This is true for melanoma as well, which is the rarest yet most dangerous form of skin cancer.
However, if melanoma spreads to other parts of the body (a process known as metastasis), the cancer may affect you beyond skin growths. “One of the challenges of melanoma is that unless you’re detecting any change, it may escape beyond this initial stage and become metastatic,” says Kaveh Alizadeh, MD, plastic and reconstructive surgeon in New York City.
How to Identify Melanoma on the Skin
Not any freckle or mole indicates melanoma—or even other types of skin cancer. While most benign skin spots are simple, round, and reddish brown, melanoma growths are “uglier.”
“You yourself can be vigilant in watching for any changes in your skin,” says Dr. Alizadeh. To help recognize melanoma, you can use the acronym ABCDE.
A is for asymmetry. Most benign moles tend to be symmetrical, meaning one half matches the other (like a perfect circle). Melanoma growths are usually asymmetrical with irregular shapes.
B is for border. The edges of a melanoma growth are often jagged and irregular, and “the border tends to change over time,” says Dr. Alizadeh.
C is for color. Melanoma growths can have uneven colors. Often, it includes black and brown shades.
D is for diameter. If the mole is getting bigger in a short period of time, that may indicate melanoma.
E is for evolving. If the mole changes in size, shape, or color within the course of weeks or months, it might be melanoma.
If melanoma has advanced and is metastatic, the growth is more likely to be ulcerated, meaning it looks like an open sore and is bleeding. Metastatic melanoma growths are also more likely to be deeper—more than four millimeters thick. However, melanoma can metastasize without causing ulceration or a deeper melanoma growth.
Other Symptoms Related to Metastatic Melanoma
Metastatic melanoma means that melanoma has spread to lymph nodes and potentially other organs. Because the cancer is forming tumors in other parts of the body, it can cause a variety of symptoms.
The most likely symptom of metastatic melanoma is swollen lymph nodes. Nearby lymph nodes are the first thing to be impacted when melanoma metastasizes. You might be able to feel the swollen lymph nodes yourself, depending on where they are located in the body.
Other possible symptoms depend on where the melanoma may have spread. Common symptoms of metastatic melanoma include aches or poor function of the lungs, liver, bones, head, or digestive system, as these are the organs most commonly affected by metastatic melanoma.
“It’s really those first five years [after a melanoma diagnosis] that are critical to make sure there’s no evidence of metastasis,” says Dr. Alizadeh. “If these tumors have escaped detection early on, unfortunately they can become very aggressive.”
If you notice any signs of melanoma or metastatic melanoma, seeing a doctor as soon as possible can be life-saving. Find out here how metastatic melanoma is diagnosed, and learn more here about treatment options for metastatic melanoma.