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Moles vs Skin Cancer: Answering Your Pressing Questions

Most moles are perfectly normal, even if you do find them a bit unsightly. Sometimes, however, a mole might be a dangerous form of skin cancer called melanoma.

What is a Mole?

A mole (or nevus as it sometimes known) is a skin growth made up of melanocytes. Melanocytes are skin cells responsible for skin’s pigmentation, which give moles their dark appearance. It’s very uncommon for a person to have no moles. In fact, the average person has somewhere between 10 and 40 moles on their body. A typical or common mole is fairly small in size, only about the size of a pencil eraser in diameter. Atypical moles are moles that are larger in size or are oddly shaped. A congenital mole is a mole that a person is born with and these can range in size and shape. Some congenital moles are very large and may be more raised in appearance than common moles. Spitz nevi are fairly rare moles that usually form on a person’s skin before they reach age twenty. Spitz nevi are different from common moles because they are often pink in color and are mound-shaped.

While none of the moles we’ve discussed are a sure sign of cancer, atypical moles can often be a sign of melanoma. Spitz nevi are actually so similar to a type of melanoma that biopsy of the mole is often necessary to rule it out.

What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that spreads quickly, making it one of the most dangerous forms of cancer in the world. If it has time to spread from the skin into the body, it can quickly produce cancer throughout the body. Melanoma is often the result of accumulated sun damage, but even people with limited sun exposure can develop melanoma. Most often, melanoma looks a lot like a mole. That’s why it’s very crucial to know the difference between different types of moles and to be aware of how your moles look and develop.

What Should I Look For?

Since melanoma is very fast-acting, detection and early intervention are key. There is a common but helpful method for detecting melanoma and recognizing its warning signs. It’s as simple as ABCDE. If a mole exhibits any or all of these qualities, it’s possible you have melanoma.

Asymmetry: A mole is asymmetrical when one half doesn’t match the other. Essentially, an asymmetrical mole is any mole that isn’t round and uniform in shape.

Border: The outside edges of a mole should be fairly rounded. If the border of a mole on your body is irregular or poorly defined, it could be a problem.

Color: If your mole isn’t one shade of dark brown and is instead pink or varies in color throughout, it could be cancerous. A mole can be a lot of different colors, like red, tan or even bluish. These colors could be a good indication of skin cancer.

Diameter: If your mole’s width is larger than about 6 millimeters (or a pencil eraser, as we mentioned before), it may be melanoma. Since melanoma is the result of uninhibited cell growth, the moles it produces will often grow larger than a common mole.

Evolving: If a mole starts out small and grows larger, or develops into different colors or begins exhibiting any of the other ABCDs, it is evolving. An evolving, changing mole is a good indicator that melanoma might be responsible.

When Should I See a Doctor About a Mole?

It might sound over-cautious, but the answer is always. Any mole has the potential to be melanoma. Every growth from melanoma starts small and grows. When melanoma looks nothing like a common mole, it’s often easier to diagnose because it looks like something out of the ordinary. But the fact of the matter is that most melanomas look like common moles or Spitz nevi. A mole is often nothing to worry about, but only your dermatologist will know for sure. If you have a history of skin cancer, even moles that appear common may be removed just to be safe.

If you’re developing new moles or have never had your moles assessed by a dermatologist, reach out today. The experts at Southeast Dermatology Specialists are only a phone call away.

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