Medical Specialties: Dermatology, Oncology

Clinical Definition

Meaning “black tumor” in Latin, melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and can affect any part of the body. Risk of melanoma is increased through exposure to UV radiation and time spent outdoors, in tanning beds or under sun lamps. Because it affects the melanocytes (i.e. pigment cells), melanomas are often brown or black in color, but sometimes are white, red or blue instead.

In Our Own Words

Overexposure to UV radiation in sunlight or other UV sources is the main cause of melanoma, according to most experts, and people with light skin who have had experience with blistering sunburns are particularly at risk.


Melanoma spreads quickly and can be deadly. Early detection is crucial, since treatment success depends on how big and how deep the melanoma has grown at time of treatment. When dermatologists see a suspicious mole, they remove a part of it for biopsy. Treatment options range from surgical excision to immunotherapy, chemotherapy and radiation, depending on the type of melanoma and how far the cancer has progressed.


When looking at moles, health care professionals often use a methodology called “ABCDEs” to detect melanoma risk: Asymmetry (i.e., one half looks different), Border (i.e., edges are irregularly shaped), Color (i.e., presence of multiple colors or uneven distribution of color), Diameter (i.e., width is greater than a pencil eraser), and Evolving (i.e., changing in size, shape or color). 

Relevant Conditions
Common Types
  • Superficial spreading
  • Nodular
  • Lentigo maligna
Side Effects
  • A changing or growing mole
  • Unusual looking mole (i.e., inconsistent with other moles)
  • Itching
  • Bleeding
  • Bruise that won’t heal
  • Brown or black streak under a fingernail
Share this article
  • Cleveland Clinic. “The Facts About Melanoma.” Accessed August 2013.
  • Melanoma Center. “Types of Melanoma.” Accessed September 2013.
  • Harvard Health Publications. “Medical Dictionary of Health Terms.” Accessed August 2013.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. “Melanoma: Signs and symptoms.” Accessed August 2013.
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