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Melanoma: Risk Factors


A number of people lying on towels on the beach
Many melanomas are related to time in the sun.

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease. 

  • Some people with 1 or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others might be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, sun exposure is a risk factor, and you can protect yourself from the sun.

Who is at risk for melanoma?

The most common risk factors for melanoma include:

  • Age. Melanoma is more common in older people, but it is still one of the more common cancers in younger people.

  • Gender. Men have a higher risk for melanoma overall, but women have a higher risk before age 40.

  • Sun exposure. Sunlight, the main source of UV rays, is a major risk factor for melanomas (and other skin cancers). Some research suggests that having many sunburns, especially in childhood, might increase the risk of getting melanoma.

  • Artificial tanning. The use of tanning beds and sunlamps has been linked to an increased risk of melanoma.

  • Moles. While most moles are harmless, people who have many moles or abnormal moles (called dysplastic nevi) are at increased risk for melanoma.

  • Fair skin, light hair. People with white skin are many times more likely to develop melanoma than those with darker skin. People with very pale skin, those who freckle easily, and those with red or blond hair are at higher risk.

  • Family history. People whose parents or siblings have had melanoma are at higher risk of melanoma. In some families, people share specific gene changes that increase their risk. For example, some families share changes in a gene known as CDKN2A, which increases their risk. Still, known gene changes account for only a small portion of melanomas.

  • Certain inherited conditions. People with certain rare, inherited conditions, such as xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), are at increased risk for melanoma.

  • Personal history. People who have had melanoma before are more likely to develop it again.

  • Weakened immune system. People who have a weakened immune system, such as people who have had an organ transplant, are at higher risk of melanoma.

What are your risk factors?

Talk with your health care provider about your risk factors for melanoma. He or she may advise you to have frequent skin exams. You may also need to do monthly skin exams for yourself at home. There are also things you can do that might lower your risk for melanoma, such as protecting yourself from the sun and not using tanning beds. Talk with your health care provider about the best ways to reduce your risks.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Last Review Date: 12/16/2014
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.