If you’ve developed a mole or notice changes to an existing mole, don’t panic! While moles can be cancerous, you can ease your fears by understanding how to distinguish a mole from skin cancer.
A mole is a cluster of melanocytes that grows on skin in a tight cluster. Melanocytes give skin its pigmentation and, when spread evenly, offer protection from sunlight and determine skin color. People with fair complexions are more likely to develop moles and it is normal for a person with fair skin to have 10 to 40 moles. You can be born with moles or develop them as you age, and it’s these new or changing moles that you should pay close attention to. There are a few different kinds of moles that could be cancerous or appear cancerous.
A common mole is the type of mole most of us are familiar with. If you have a visible mole, odds are it’s a common mole. These moles appear as brown spots on the skin. They usually develop in the first twenty years of life, and many people are born with them. A common mole is rarely associated with cancer.
You can think of an atypical mole as a common mole that breaks the rules. While they’re similar in appearance to common moles at a quick glance, atypical moles can be cancerous. Common moles are round, but atypical moles will be asymmetrical, larger than a pencil eraser, and/or be more than one color. An atypical mole (sometimes called a dysplastic mole) does not need to exhibit all of these characteristics, but they can display more than one. These moles can be cancerous, or they can develop into a cancerous mole.
A Spitz nevus (nevus is another word for mole) often looks exactly like a cancerous mole, but this isn’t always the case. Most spitz nevi (nevi is the plural of nevus) are pink/red, raised, and dome-shaped. This type of mole can also be brown or black, and can bleed or ooze from an opening. Usually, spitz nevi develop in the first twenty years of a person’s life.
When we say skin cancer in regard to moles, we are referring to melanoma. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and it usually affects existing moles or develops a new mole of its own. Melanoma is especially dangerous because it develops quickly and spreads throughout the body. Like any type of cancer, melanoma is the rapid and unchecked growth of cells in the body. Though melanoma starts on the skin and affects skin cells and melanocytes, it can develop quickly in other cells throughout the body and become life-threatening very quickly.
Early detection of melanoma is key, so dermatologists have developed a useful visual guide to differentiating melanoma and a benign (noncancerous) mole. Doctors have crafted a simple acronym for explaining mole irregularity and melanoma. The “ABCDEs of Melanoma” refer to the five visible indicators of a potentially cancerous mole. If your mole exhibits one or more of these attributes, it may be melanoma.
A is for asymmetry, meaning one side of a mole is not the same as the other.
B is for border. Pay attention to the outside edge of your mole or moles.Are they are irregular, scalloped, or jagged in appearance?
C is for color. Is the color of your mole inconsistent, with varying shades of brown or black, and even white, blue, or red?
D is for diameter. Is your mole larger than 6mm in diameter? This is roughly the size of a pencil eraser. Melanoma may not start this large, but if a mole seems to be growing, take note.
E is for evolving. Keep an eye on any moles you have. Are they changing in size, color, or shape?
It’s crucial to keep these features in mind and to err on the side of caution when dealing with moles. While most are benign and little more than small cosmetic imperfections on our skin, some can be dangerous. A benign mole won’t usually exhibit these features, but occasionally they can. Your dermatologist will perform a visual inspection and a biopsy if need be to determine whether your mole is cancerous.
Moles are usually nothing to stress over, but they can be harmful in some instances. If you suspect a mole is changing or developing, reach out to your New England dermatologist and get the peace of mind that diagnosis and quick treatment can bring.