Melanoma occurs when abnormal cells in the skin grow in an uncontrolled way.
Your skin is made up of many types of cells. One of these cell types – called melanocytes – give your skin its colour by producing a brown pigment called melanin. Melanoma is cancer that occurs in melanocytes.
Other types of skin cells can also develop into cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma. These are sometimes called non-melanoma skin cancer, and are more common than melanoma. Melanoma is more likely to spread to other parts of the body (metastasise) than other types of skin cancer.
Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, but it is more common on the trunk (chest and back), head or neck in men, and the arms and legs in women. The face is another common site. This section focuses on melanoma that starts in the skin. Less commonly, melanoma can develop in the eye, under the fingernails, the gastrointestinal tract and the genitals.
Melanoma is one of the 10 most common cancers in both men and women in Australia. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. This is probably related to the high proportion of the population who are fair skinned and are exposed to the sun from early childhood.