Moles, or nevi, are often harmless skin growths, but there are times when a mole can be detrimental. It’s important to recognize the signs and characteristics of a dangerous mole and arm yourself with that knowledge before you need it.
A common mole is a growth that appears on the topmost layer of skin. It is composed of skin cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for giving skin its pigmentation. As a result, moles are darker in color than surrounding skin, and are often slightly raised with a distinct edge. Most moles are round in shape and have distinct edges or borders.
Most people with fair skin have 50 or more moles on their body. While moles are usually benign (noncancerous), they can occasionally be melanoma. As you have probably heard, melanoma is a deadly, yet common form of skin cancer. Part of why it’s so dangerous is that it looks an awful lot like a regular mole. But there are certain characteristics that melanoma usually shows that can be its tell. Analyze your mole with the ABCDEs of melanoma, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re looking at.
The first component of the ABCDEs of Melanoma is “asymmetry.” Common moles are usually round in shape. If your mole isn’t a perfect circle, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s melanoma. If your mole is even subtly misshapen, and wouldn’t be the same on both sides if an imaginary line was drawn down the middle of it, it’s asymmetrical. But it’s not just shape that can be asymmetrical. If the color of your mole changes, or its borders are different on each side, that is also considered asymmetry.
The next thing to look for with your mole is its “borders.” Common moles have rounded, uniform edges with a defined outside border. Melanoma has atypical borders. If the definition of the borders is fuzzy or unclear, that might be a sign that your mole is actually melanoma. A common term for the border of some atypical moles is that they look “scalloped.” Essentially, the borders of melanoma are bumpy and irregular.
The “color” of your mole can tell you a lot about what might be causing it. Common moles are darker in color than your complexion, but are consistent across the entire growth. With melanoma, the color may vary within the same mole, ranging from blue to red. Other discoloration within atypical moles includes white spots or dark black spots. If you have a new mole, compare its coloration to a mole you’ve had for a long time. If the mole has more than one color, or even if it’s drastically different in color, it might be melanoma.
If your mole is larger than the head of a pencil in “diameter,” it is considered atypical. Diameter is the measure of how wide across a mole is. If a mole starts as a larger growth or becomes larger, it could be melanoma. As with all of these rules, atypical moles don’t necessarily mean melanoma, but it’s much more likely to be lurking within a mole that is 6 millimeters wide or larger.
Finally, if a mole is “evolving,” it’s considered atypical and, therefore, could be melanoma.
If your mole’s characteristics change at all from how it first appeared—whether it’s the shape, border, color or diameter—it’s atypical. A mole’s “evolution” can occur slowly or quickly, so it’s very important to keep an eye on any mole that you have, and get yearly evaluations of your moles.
When you visit a dermatologist and he or she determines that an atypical mole is melanoma, it’s time to act fast. The most effective method for removing melanoma is actually an old process called Mohs micrographic surgery. Since the 1930s, doctors have been using this method for surgically removing melanoma. Mohs works by removing the topmost layer of skin with extreme accuracy and examining it for signs of cancer. This process is repeated, with the next layer being removed and so on, until no signs of cancer are visible under a microscope. When detected early, melanoma can be removed by Mohs surgery effectively and safely. It is up to 99% successful, but that success is owed in part to your proactive self-examination. Check your skin often for moles, and don’t let melanoma hide in plain sight!
If you have any moles, it’s important to have them examined yearly by a dermatologist. If you’re ready to err on the side of caution, reach out to the people you can trust, at Northeast Dermatology Associates.
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