Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Melanoma is a cancer that usually starts in a certain type of skin cell called melanocytes. Melanocytes make a brown pigment called melanin, which gives the skin its tan or brown colour. Melanin protects the deeper layers of the skin from some of the harmful effects of the sun. For most people, when skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more of the pigment, causing the skin to tan or darken.
The primary cause of melanoma is ultraviolet light exposure either from the sun or from other sources, such as tanning devices. Melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin, but they are more likely to start on the trunk (chest and back) in men and on the legs in women. The neck and face are other common sites.
Most melanoma cells still make melanin, so melanoma tumours are usually brown or black. But some melanomas do not make melanin and can appear pink, tan, or even white.