A woman is looking in the mirror and pointing at a mole
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, but it’s also the most preventable. The first first signs of skin cancer often sprout in the form of a new, unusual mole on the surface of the skin.
Photo Credit: deeepblue / iStockPhoto.com

Knowing When to Investigate Further Can Save Your Life

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, but it’s also the most preventable. It also happens to be much more visible than other cancers, since the first signs of trouble often sprout in the form of a new, unusual mole on the surface of the skin.

The problem is spotting suspicious moles can be easier said than done, especially if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. Since everybody is different, and the naked eye is not a foolproof diagnostic tool, skin cancer could sneak under your radar. While this sort of cancer has a very high survival rate if caught early, your prognosis is much worse once the cancer has had time to spread.

Fortunately, there are reliable methods to spot a problematic mole early on, and you’ll want to start using them right away. The better you can recognize a suspicious mole, the sooner you can get the medical attention you need to deal with the problem before it becomes something very serious.

Why Moles Can Be Difficult to Assess

It would be nice if there was a simple chart to consult whenever you were uncertain about a mark on your body, but it’s not always that easy to recognize a problem. In fact, sticking to a clear and concise rule book can be dangerous when it comes to moles — it’s much better to err on the side of caution and get any worrisome spot checked out.

Although guidelines are helpful, try not to get stuck on vocabulary, or one-size-fits-all claims. After all, moles can be difficult to decipher, because:

Color often varies. Moles come in a wide variety of hues and shades, from barely visible light brown to black. Simply judging a mole based on its shade of brown can be very misleading, especially if you have a variety of moles in a variety of shades around your body.

Bumpier doesn’t mean worse. Moles can be flat or raised, and they could even flatten or rise over time. Raised moles are often lighter in color and soft to the touch. Some people are more prone to raised moles, while others have flat moles. Neither type automatically points to a problem, or disqualifies you from one.

Small spots can cause big problems. While it’s true that any big, protruding moles should sound an alarm, they’re not the only source of trouble. In cases where most of your moles are rather big, one smaller one can be the problem (especially if it’s also shaped differently than the others).

That said, you would be wise to look out for obvious warning signs and certain known patterns. Take a cue from dermatologists and scan your body every couple of months, looking out for red flags.

Signs of a Problem

Your eyes are your best allies in early skin cancer detection. Get into the habit of looking closely at your skin from head to toe, using a mirror to help you see every inch of your skin. Although moles are stationary, your skin is one big organ: even regions that never see the sunlight could be affected by dangerous changes to the tissue, considering it’s all connected.

Here are a few things to look out for while you inspect your moles:

The odd one out. When it comes to moles, regular patterns are good, outliers are bad. If most of your moles fall into the same size and color category, any mole that stands out from that crowd in any respect should be examined more closely. These are known as dysplastic moles, and they can indicate that the cells are behaving differently than the healthy cells in your other moles.

New growths in adulthood. Moles tend to pop up throughout childhood, and in many cases, these are just benign skin changes. However, your risk of skin cancer rises with your exposure to the sun, and that means adults are more vulnerable than children. In fact, melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) is the most common form of cancer in young adults between the ages of 25 and 29.

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Bigger than average. When cancer spreads, groups of cell grow. So, if cancer manifests in a mole, that mole can grow much bigger than your average moles (cancer cells also multiply more rapidly than other cells). Take a look at your body, and make a note of any moles that are noticeably bigger than the others. If they also look different in other ways, see your doctor right away.

Change in sensation. Moles are typically neutral; they don’t hurt, they don’t tingle — they’re just there. When a mole begins to itch, ache or bleed, that’s a sign that something’s wrong. Even if you’ve had the mole for quite a while, you’ll need to get it checked out.

Change in appearance. Although moles can change a bit shortly after they form, a noticeable change in color, size, shape, or height is something to be concerned about. A change in texture is another concern: rough, flaky, or scaly moles can spell trouble, too.

Dermatologists have developed a handy device to single out suspicious spots, known as the ABCDEs of moles. Get in the habit of using this every time you check out your skin:

  • Asymmetry. When one half looks different than the other half, get it checked.
  • Border. Ragged, blurred or smudged borders are bad signs.
  • Color. If there is more than one color in the mole, there could be a problem.
  • Diameter. Moles that are larger than the diameter of a pencil are suspicious.
  • Evolving. A mole that changes over time is a big red flag.

Although each of these elements are important to consider, the last one is probably the most important. Skin cancer often spreads rapidly, and as those cancer cells multiply, they can change the look of the mole. Never ignore a changing mole.

Other Elements That Could Raise Your Risk

Each mole has qualities and clues to acknowledge, but there are also other factors that might make you more vulnerable to skin cancer than the average person.

Family history. Although nobody is immune to the sun’s dangerous effects, you might be more prone to skin cancers than the average person if a close family member has been diagnosed with melanoma. If a sibling or parent has had a cancerous mole, you should be checking your body at least once a month for suspicious signs.

Previous problem. If you’ve already had a cancerous mole removed, you’re more likely to develop another one in the future. Melanoma survivors are nine times as likely to contract melanoma again as the rest of the population.

Site of the mole. A cancerous mole could show up anywhere on your body, even in places that aren’t typically exposed, but melanomas tend to follow a specific pattern. For men the most common site is on the back, and for women it’s the lower leg.

If you’re worried about a mole, there’s no reason to wait and see what happens. Make an appointment with your family doctor right away; if they also have suspicions, they will refer you to a dermatologist. Remember, skin cancer that’s caught early can often be quickly and completely eradicated.