Melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin cells called melanocytes (cells that color the skin).

Melanocytes are found throughout the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. The skin has two main layers: the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer).

There are three types of skin cancer:

Melanoma is more aggressive than the others. 

Working closely together, physicians in the Department of Dermatology at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center and at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center treat more melanoma than at any other center in inland Northern California.  Our specialists have extensive experience caring for patients with all stages of melanomas.  Our physician-scientists also are at the forefront of research to find new and better ways to prevent, detect and cure skin cancer in all its forms.

cellIf a mole or pigmented area of the skin changes or looks abnormal, the following tests and procedures can help detect and diagnose melanoma:

  • Skin examination: A doctor or nurse examines the skin to look for moles, birthmarks, or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Biopsy: A local excision is done to remove as much of the suspicious mole or lesion as possible. A dermatopathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. Because melanoma can be hard to diagnose, patients should consider having their biopsy sample checked by a second pathologist.

Suspicious areas should not be shaved off or cauterized (destroyed with a hot instrument).

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

  • A mole that:
    • changes in size, shape, or color
    • has irregular edges or borders
    • is more than one color
    • is asymmetrical (if the mole is divided in half, the two halves are different in size or shape)
    • itches
    • oozes, bleeds, or is ulcerated (a hole forms in the skin when the top layer of cells breaks down and the underlying tissue shows through)
  • Change in pigmented (colored) skin
  • Satellite moles (new moles that grow near an existing mole)

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

  • Unusual moles
  • Exposure to natural sunlight
  • Exposure to artificial ultraviolet light (tanning booth)
  • Family or personal history of melanoma
  • Being white and older than 20 years
  • Red or blond hair
  • White or light-colored skin and freckles
  • Blue eyes

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center offers the most advanced treatment available for all types and stages of malignant melanoma.  For most melanomas, the first-line treatment is surgical removal.  A specific and accurate form of lymph node sampling, sentinel node biopsy, is widely used in our center for tumors with risk for lymph node involvement.  Targeted therapy (e.g. vemurafenib) chemotherapy, radiation and other therapy may be added in some cases.

In cases of disseminated melanoma, treatment typically consists of chemotherapy or an investigational therapy.  UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center specialists were involved in the groundbreaking research that led to today's standard of care for melanoma, and they remain at the forefront of efforts to advance treatment of the disease through clinical trials of promising investigational drugs and therapies.

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 


Barbara Burrall, M.D.Barbara Burrall, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Dermatology

Maxwell Fung, M.D.Maxwell Fung, M.D.
Professor of Clinical Dermatology and Pathology
Director, UC Davis Dermatopathology Service

Maxwell Fung, M.D.Emanual Maverakis, M.D.
Associate Professor of Dermatology

Hematology and Oncology

Scott Christensen, M.D.Scott Christensen, M.D.
Professor of Internal Medicine, Hematology and Oncology
Associate Director, Hospice Program


Cameron GaskillCameron Gaskill, M.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Division Surgical Oncology


Danielle BahamDanielle Baham, M.S., R.D.

Kathleen NewmanKathleen Newman, R.D., C.S.O.

Genetic Counselors

Kellie BrownKellie Brown, M.Sc., L.G.C.

Nicole Mans, M.S., L.C.G.C.Nicole Mans, M.S., L.C.G.C.

Jeanna Welborn, M.D.Jeanna Welborn, M.D.

Social Workers

Sara Chavez, LCSW, OSW-C, ACHP-SWSara Chavez, L.C.S.W., O.S.W.-C., A.C.H.P.-S.W.

Angela Usher, LCSW, OSW-CAngela Usher, L.C.S.W., O.S.W.-C.