Melanoma Awareness, Skin Cancer

Understanding early melanoma symptoms

What is melanoma and how can you recognise it?

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Team MoleMap Creator
Posted 23/04/19
Early Stages Of Melanoma

The content in this article is sourced from Melanoma NZ's 'Understanding Early Melanoma' booklet. If you wish to donate to Melanoma NZ, please click here.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from pigment (colour) producing cells in the skin, called melanocytes. These are the cells responsible for the colour of our skin, eyes and hair. When these cells divide in an unusual way, it can result in melanoma. Melanoma can be more serious than other types of skin cancer, it can progress quickly and be life-threatening if left untreated.

Cancer occurs when some cells in the body don’t obey their in-built instructions about how to divide, how to grow and when to die. This happens when the genetic information in the cells is damaged, for example by exposure to the sun and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

When this happens, cells don’t die (to be replaced with new cells), and they grow and divide more rapidly than they are supposed to. In addition, the body’s immune system, which normally eliminates such 'rogue' cells, fails to destroy these cells. When these things happen together the cells may grow into a mass or a lump that becomes a cancerous tumour. If left alone, a malignant or cancerous tumor can spread into surrounding tissues, your lymphatic system and to other parts of the body.

Stages Of Melanoma

From left: the five stages of melanoma - once stage 5 is reached cancer can spread quickly throughout the body

What is early melanoma?

Early melanoma is melanoma that has not spread to other parts of your body. It usually starts in either a mole or normal looking skin. It develops from melanocytes that grow and divide faster than they should, and grow into the underlying layers of your skin.

On the surface of your skin a melanoma may look like a dark spot or an unusual mole. It may change quite rapidly, changing shape and size. As the melanoma grows it can progress into the lower layers of your skin. It can spread into your lymphatic system as well as other parts of your body. Early melanoma is unlikely to spread into the blood or lymphatic vessels and is usually cured with surgery. Early treatment reduces the likelihood that your melanoma will spread.


Melanoma often starts with changes in a mole or freckle you already have, but about half of all melanomas start with a change in what was normal looking skin. The first symptoms of early melanoma are changes in the skin and it is important that if you notice changes you talk to your doctor.

Click here to find out more about detecting melanoma.

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