The 5 Stages of Melanoma

Definitions and how each stage impacts treatment and survival

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If you've been told you have melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer, your doctor probably used the word "stage" when they broke the news.

Stage is a way to describe how serious the cancer is. The five stages of melanoma range from stage 0 (least serious) to stage 4 (most serious).

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Melanoma in situ
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

The melanoma stage can help an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancer, decide how to treat the disease.

In this article, you'll learn what helps define each stage and what staging means in terms of prognosis. This basic understanding will hopefully leave you feeling less confused about your diagnosis and more equipped to play a confident and active role in your treatment decisions.

TNM Staging of Melanoma

Nearly all healthcare professionals throughout the world use the eighth edition of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) melanoma staging system, which came into use on January 1, 2018.

It's based on what is called the TNM system, in which each letter refers to specific aspects of melanoma.

"T" Is for Tumor

The T used in melanoma staging refers to how large and thick the growth is. It also indicates if the tumor has ulcerated, or broken through to the skin beneath it.

The T will be followed by a number that corresponds to a specific size and thickness.

After that, there is usually a letter to indicate if the tumor has ulcerated.

  • An "a" means no ulceration.
  • A "b" means there is ulceration.

"N" Is for Node

The N refers to lymph nodes. When a melanoma starts to spread beyond the original tumor, it typically will move to a nearby lymph node or cluster of lymph nodes.

A melanoma that doesn't involve the lymph nodes will be labeled as N0.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes are small structures that filter substances and help fight infection. They are part of a network that runs throughout the body. Cancer that reaches the lymph nodes is concerning because cancer cells can easily spread to other parts of the body through this interconnected system.

Whether or not a melanoma spreads to one or more lymph nodes, it also may affect nearby skin. Such melanoma tumors are called satellite tumors. They're defined as being within 2 centimeters (cm) of the original tumor and can be seen without a microscope.

Melanoma tumors also may spread to lymphatic channels, thin tubes that resemble blood capillaries, through which lymph fluid flows.

"M" Means Metastasis

When cancer cells spread to a part of the body far from the original tumor site, it is said to have metastasized. This can mean the cancer is advanced and may be hard to treat.

The organs melanoma most often spreads to are the lungs, liver, brain, and bones.

  • A melanoma that has not metastasized is labeled as M0.
  • A tumor that has metastasized is labeled as M1.

Recap

Melanomas are staged based on three characteristics of the tumor: Its size and thickness (T), whether it has spread to nearby skin or lymph nodes (N), and whether it has metastasized, or spread to distant organs (M).

Stage 0

A melanoma that's caught early, while it's still small and hasn't affected the skin underneath it, is known as melanoma in situ.

It may be labeled as stage 0 or Tis.

Melanoma in situ almost always can be cured. It usually is treated with a procedure known as wide excision, in which the tumor and a small amount of the healthy skin around it are removed.

Stage 1

Melanomas in this early stage have not spread to other parts of the body. They are staged based on size, thickness, and whether they have ulcerated.

There are three categories of stage 1 melanoma:

Stage 1A

  • T1a: The tumor is smaller than 0.8 mm and has not ulcerated.

Stage 1B

The tumor is smaller than 0.8 mm, has not spread, and and has not ulcerated.

  • T1b: The tumor is smaller than 0.8 mm and there is ulceration OR the tumor is between 0.8 mm and 1.0 mm with or without ulceration.
  • T2a: The tumor is between 1.0 mm and 2.0 mm but has not ulcerated.

Stage 2 

In stage 2 melanoma, the cancer is larger than in stage 1 but has not yet spread to other parts of the body. It may or may not have ulcerated.

Stage 2A

  • T2b: The tumor is between 1.0 mm and 2.0 mm with ulceration.
  • T3a: The tumor is between 2.0 mm and 4.0 mm but has not ulcerated.

Stage 2B

  • T3b: The tumor is between 2.0 mm and 4.0 mm with ulceration.
  • T4a: The tumor is larger than 4.0 mm without ulceration.

Stage 2C

  • T4b: The tumor is larger than 4.0 mm and has ulcerated.

Stage 3

At this stage, the tumor has affected at least one lymph node and perhaps more. There may or may not be satellite tumors. Furthermore, there may or may not be cancer cells in lymphatic channels.

Stage 3A

The tumor is less than 2.0 mm in size and may or may not be ulcerated. Between one and three nearby lymph nodes are affected, but only to the extent the cells can be seen with a microscope.

Stage 3B

The tumor is no more the 4.0 mm, may or may not have ulcerated, and has done one of the following:

  • Spread to only one lymph node
  • Spread to many small areas of skin or lymphatic channels
  • Spread to two or three lymph nodes

Stage 3C

There are three possibilities in this stage:

  • The tumor is no more than 4.0 mm in size, may or may not be ulcerated, and cancer cells have spread to many areas of nearby skin or lymphatic channels as well as lymph nodes OR there are cancer cells in four or more lymph nodes or clumps of lymph nodes.
  • The tumor is between 2.0 mm and 4.0 mm with ulceration OR is thicker than 4.0 with no ulceration. There are cancer cells in one or more nearby lymph nodes and/or small areas of nearby skin or lymphatic channels.
  • The tumor is thicker than 4.0 mm and is ulcerated and has reached one to three lymph nodes that are not clumped together OR has spread to small areas of skin or lymphatic channel and may or may not have reached one lymph node.

Stage 3D

The tumor is thicker than 4.0 mm and has ulcerated and has spread to:

  • Four or more lymph nodes or to a nearby clump of lymph nodes
  • Small areas of skin or lymphatic channels as well as at least two nearby lymph nodes or nodes that are clumped together

Stage 4

This is the most advanced stage of melanoma. It's the only stage in which cancer cells have spread to one or more distant body parts.

Once this happens, the melanoma is given a stage 4 classification no matter how big the original tumor is, whether there are satellite tumors, or whether any lymph nodes or lymphatic channels are affected.

Recap

Within each of the five stages of melanoma there are lots of substages. These depend on factors such as the exact size of the tumor, how many lymph nodes are involved (if any), and so forth. The higher number the stage, the more extensive the cancer.

Melanoma Survival Rates

One of your first questions after being diagnosed with melanoma is likely to be whether or not it can be cured. There's no way to predict exactly how a disease like melanoma will progress for an individual person. Everyone is different and every cancer is different.

That said, most experts talk about melanoma outcomes in terms of five-year survival rate.

What Is a Five-Year Survival Rate?

Five-year survival rate refers to the average number of people with a particular disease or condition who are alive five years after being diagnosed.

Cancer experts based five-year survival rates for melanoma on information from a database called SEER, which stands for the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program.

Survival statistics from the SEER database are not based on AJCC melanoma staging. Instead, they're based on if and how far the melanoma has spread:

Type  Definition  Five-Year Survival Rate
 Localized The cancer has not spread to nearby skin, lymph nodes, or lymphatic channels. 99%
 Regional There are signs the cancer has spread to nearby skin or lymph nodes. 68% 
 Distant The melanoma has metastasized, 30%


The five-year survival rate for all three SEER stages combined is 93%.

The five-year survival rate for all three SEER stages combined is 93%.

Summary

Healthcare providers use the TNM staging system to define the severity of a case of melanoma. Knowing this allows them to figure out the best way to treat the disease.

This system looks at three specific aspects of a melanoma: tumor size and depth (T), lymph node involvement (N), and metastasis (M).

The five stages of melanoma are based on this information. The earliest, stage 0, is highly curable. The most advanced, stage 4, tends to be challenging to treat.

Five-year survival rates for melanoma are based on whether the cancer has spread and to what degree.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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