Genetic Counseling and Testing for People at High Risk of Melanoma

Gene mutations (changes) that increase melanoma risk can be passed down through families (inherited), but these account for only a small portion of melanomas. You might have inherited a gene mutation that increases your risk of melanoma if any of the following apply:

  • Several members on one side of your family have had melanoma
  • A family member has had more than one melanoma
  • A family member has had both melanoma and pancreatic cancer
  • You have had 3 or more melanomas, especially if the first one appeared before age 45
  • You have had 2 or more unusual looking moles called Spitz nevi

Some families with high rates of melanoma have mutations in genes such as CDKN2A (also known as p16). Tests for some of these gene changes are now available, although doctors aren't sure how useful they are at this time. In part, this is because people with any of the factors above are already known to have a higher risk of melanoma regardless of whether they carry a mutated gene, so it’s not always clear how helpful the genetic testing results would be.

Still, people interested in learning whether they carry gene changes linked to melanoma may want to ask their doctor about whether genetic counseling (and possibly testing) might be right for them. They could also consider taking part in genetic research that will advance progress in this field.

If you’re considering genetic testing, it’s very important to meet first with a genetic counselor or other health professional with knowledge of genetic testing. They can describe the tests to you and explain what the results may or may not tell you about your risk. Genetic testing is not perfect, and sometimes the tests might not provide clear answers. To learn more about genetic testing in general, see Genetics and Cancer.

At this time, because it’s not clear how useful the test results might be, most melanoma experts don’t recommend genetic testing for all people with a personal or family history of melanoma. Still, some people may choose to get tested. In any event, people with a family history of melanoma should ask their doctor about getting regular skin exams, learning to do skin self-exams, and being particularly careful about sun safety.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Swetter SM, Tsao H, Bichakjian CK, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of primary cutaneous melanoma. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80:208-250.

Tsao H, Rodgers L, Patel D. Inherited susceptibility to melanoma. UpToDate. 2019. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/inherited-susceptibility-to-melanoma on June 10, 2019.

Last Medical Review: August 14, 2019 Last Revised: August 14, 2019

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