Just about everybody has at least a couple moles scattered around on the surface of their skin, and for the most part, they’re nothing to worry about. However, moles are often the site where skin cancer originates and develops.
Here in Utah, where the magnificent mountains, lakes, and rivers provide plenty of outdoor activities all year round, we get exposed to an abundance of sun, even in the winter, and that means we see a lot of skin cancer cases at Holladay Dermatology & Aesthetics. Sometimes it looks like flat scaly lesions or crusty sores, but oftentimes skin cancer shows up in a mole.
While the best way to know for sure whether your mole is cancerous is to come in for a professional examination by our specialists, there are some telltale signs that your mole is suspicious, and all you have to do is remember your ABCs and your Ds and Es.
Skin cancer 101
Before we dive into figuring out what is and isn’t a cancerous mole, let’s brush up on what skin cancer is. In the simplest terms, cancer is merely a growth of cells — but not normal cells.
When you overexpose your skin to the sun, the ultraviolet rays penetrate your skin and damage the tissue within. Your skin’s first response is to protect itself by sending melanin (pigment) to the area, so what you think of as a healthy tan is actually your body’s defense mechanism.
Over time, this process mutates the DNA in your skin cells, so when they reproduce, they become abnormal growths that may be malignant.
The sun is the most common source of skin cell damage, but you can also develop cancer from exposure to certain chemicals and radiation. You’re more likely to develop skin cancer if it runs in your family, you’ve had it before, you have fair skin, you have a weakened immune system, or you have more than 100 moles on your body.
How to spot a suspicious mole
It’s not unusual to have up to 40 or so moles on your body, and heredity has a lot to do with how many moles you have and where they’re located. A mole is simply a cluster of skin cells. If you think that sounds like the same description as skin cancer, you’re right. Moles and skin cancer are both clumps of skin cells, but one is a group of healthy cells and the other is a group of abnormal, mutated cells.
The primary characteristic of a suspicious mole is change. Moles that stay the same shape and size over the years are rarely a cause for concern. But if you notice a mole transforming, it’s important to get it checked right away.
Use this alphabetic checklist to evaluate your moles:
- Asymmetrical moles, where the two halves are different, may be cancerous
- Borders of your moles should be smooth and even, not jagged or scalloped
- Color of moles should be flesh-toned or slightly darker with no marbling or mottling
- Diameter should be no larger than a pea
- Evolving moles — shape-shifters, rapid growth, color changes — are cause for concern
Because change is the primary symptom, it’s important to know what “normal” looks like. So, get to know your moles. Take note of how many you have and where they’re located. You can even take pictures on your smartphone so you (and we) have something to compare it to if you ever suspect a change.
Treating and removing moles
If you have a benign mole that constantly gets caught on your clothing or jewelry, we can remove it easily here in our office in Holladay, Utah. Many of our patients simply prefer to have them removed for cosmetic reasons.
However, moles that appear to be malignant require a biopsy for an accurate diagnosis. This means we shave a tiny portion of it so we can examine the cells under a microscope. if we discover that your mole is cancerous, then it needs to be removed.
Small moles can be excised quickly, but larger moles may call for a deeper incision and stitches afterward. Getting rid of malignant moles is the best way to stop the progression of the cancer and ensure it won’t spread.
If you have any suspicious moles, don’t wait. Contact us at Holladay Dermatology & Aesthetics today and schedule an appointment to have your moles checked.