The Spread of Melanoma Metastasis

If you or a family member or friend have recently been diagnosed with melanoma, you may be wondering, just where and why can melanoma spread?

With surgery, melanoma confined to the skin has a 5-year survival rate in 98% of cases. Unfortunately, if the lesion recurs (returns), gets thicker, or spreads from the skin to the lymph nodes or distant organs, it becomes much more dangerous. This occurs in stage III and IV melanoma and is called melanoma metastasis.

What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin—the pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanoma can also form in your eyes and, rarely, in internal organs, such as your intestines.

The exact cause of all melanomas isn't clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases your risk of developing melanoma. Limiting your exposure to UV radiation can help reduce your risk of melanoma.

The risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40, especially women. Knowing the warning signs of skin cancer can help ensure that cancerous changes are detected and treated before cancer has spread. Melanoma can be treated successfully if it is detected early.

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

Melanoma in situ
Early melanoma. DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

How Is Metastasis Detected?

If your healthcare provider suspects that your melanoma may have spread, there are several tools available to verify the diagnosis. These include a blood test for lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), which increases when melanoma metastasizes, and imaging studies, such as chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and ultrasound.

The practitioner may also need to take a sample of your lymph nodes, using a procedure called "sentinel lymph node mapping." If confirmed, there are many treatments available, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.

Where Melanoma Spreads

Studies have shown that melanoma can spread to almost any area of the body—a wider variety of areas than any other cancer. The likelihood that it will spread to each organ is as follows:

  • Lymph Nodes: 50% to 75%
  • Lungs and area between the lungs: 70% to 87%
  • Liver: 54% to 77%
  • Brain: 36% to 54%
  • Bone: 23% to 49%
  • Gastrointestinal tract: 26% to 58%
  • Heart: 40% to 45%
  • Pancreas: 38% to 53%
  • Adrenal glands: 36% to 54%
  • Kidneys: 35% to 48%
  • Spleen: 30%

Metastasis in the brain usually occur late in stage IV disease and carry the worst prognosis, with an average survival of only four months.

Can Metastasis be Prevented?

Melanoma can spread "silently," meaning that you may not experience any symptoms of metastasis. Therefore, if you've been treated for early-stage melanoma in the past, it is extremely important to perform regular self-examinations of your skin and lymph nodes, to keep all your appointments for checkups, and practice sun safety. There is nothing else an individual can do to prevent metastasis from being very diligent.

Catching a recurrence early greatly increases your chances of successful treatment.

Skin Cancer Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman
6 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.
  1. Venosa A. Skin Cancer Foundation. How dangerous is melanoma? It's all a matter of timing. Sun & Skin News.

  2. National Cancer Institute. What does melanoma look like?

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer, incidence rates.

  4. American Cancer Society. Tests for melanoma skin cancer.

  5. Costache M, Stoica A, Contolenco A, et al. Metastatic Melanoma in the Femur - Case Report with Review of Literature: a Pathologist's Point of View. Maedica (Buchar).

  6. Vosoughi E, Lee JM, Miller JR, et al. Survival and clinical outcomes of patients with melanoma brain metastasis in the era of checkpoint inhibitors and targeted therapies. BMC Cancer. 2018;18(1):490. doi:10.1186/s12885-018-4374-x

Additional Reading
  • King DM. Imaging of metastatic melanoma. Cancer Imaging. 2006;6:204-8. DOI: 10.1102/1470-7330.2006.0033

  • Mayo Clinic. Melanoma.

  • Melanoma: How It Returns, Where It Spreads. American Academy of Dermatology.

By Timothy DiChiara, PhD
Timothy J. DiChiara, PhD, is a former research scientist and published writer specializing in oncology.