Skin cancer is a prevalent form of cancer worldwide, and its incidence continues to rise. As a dermatologist, it is crucial to educate patients and the general public about the signs of skin cancer, as early detection can significantly improve outcomes. In this essential guide, we will discuss the various signs of skin cancer and provide valuable information for identifying potential warning signs.
What is a mole?
A mole, also known as a nevus, is a dark spot on the skin formed by a group of skin cells that grow together instead of individually. These cells, called melanocytes, produce melanin, the pigment responsible for the color of our skin.
Moles are a frequently occurring type of skin growth. They typically present as small brown spots and are caused by clusters of pigmented cells. Moles commonly develop during childhood and adolescence. Most individuals have between 10 and 40 moles, some of which may change in appearance or disappear over time.
The majority of moles are benign and pose no threat. Instances where moles become cancerous are rare. However, it is crucial to monitor moles and other skin lesions carefully as part of the process for detecting skin cancer, particularly malignant melanoma.
The initial indications of melanoma typically involve a change in an existing mole or the appearance of a new skin growth. These changes are commonly observed on sun-exposed areas of the body, such as the face, scalp, arms, back, or calves. Nevertheless, melanoma can also develop in areas that are not typically exposed to the sun.
Types of Skin Moles
There are several types of skin moles that can vary in appearance and potential risk. It is important to be aware of the different types to assess if a mole requires medical attention. Here are the common classifications of moles:
●Congenital moles: These moles are present at birth and are known as congenital nevi. They occur in approximately 1 percent of the population and may have an increased risk of developing into skin cancer.
●Acquired moles: Acquired moles are the most common type and typically develop during childhood or early adulthood. They are usually smaller than a quarter inch and are believed to be a result of excessive sun exposure. The majority of acquired moles do not transform into skin cancer.
●Atypical moles: Also referred to as dysplastic nevi, atypical moles are larger than a pencil eraser and have irregular shapes. They often exhibit uneven coloration, with a dark brown center and lighter or reddish borders. Atypical moles may also display irregularities or black dots around the edges. These moles tend to run in families and have an increased risk of developing into skin cancer.
Most people naturally develop more moles on their skin as they age and with sun exposure, and in most cases, these moles are harmless. However, it is important to conduct regular skin checks, ideally monthly, especially if there is a family history of skin cancer, or at least every three months, to monitor for any changes in moles. If you notice any unusual changes in a mole's appearance, such as size, shape, color, or texture, it is recommended to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation.
Change in the appearance of moles: Moles are common on the skin and are usually harmless. However, any change in their size, shape, color, or texture should be closely monitored.
The ABCDE rule can help you identify suspicious moles:
●Asymmetry: One half of the mole does not match the other half.
●Border irregularity: The borders of the mole are not smooth but rather jagged or notched.
●Color variation: The mole exhibits different colors or shades within it, such as black, brown, red, white, or blue.
●Diameter: The mole is larger than 6 millimeters in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser).
●Evolution: The mole changes over time, either in size, shape, color, or symptoms (e.g., itching, bleeding, or crusting).
New or changing spots on the skin: Pay attention to any new spots that appear on your skin or existing ones that change in size, shape, color, or texture. These spots may be elevated, rough, scaly, or bleeding.
Remember that these signs and symptoms don't automatically mean that a mole is cancerous, but they can be warning signs that warrant further evaluation. If you're unsure about a mole or have concerns, it's always best to consult a healthcare professional, such as a dermatologist, who can assess the mole and determine if any further action is needed.
What factors increase the risk of melanoma?
●Having a dysplastic nevus: Individuals with atypical or dysplastic moles have an increased risk of melanoma.
●Having many small moles or several large moles: The presence of a large number of moles or specific types of moles can be associated with a higher risk of melanoma.
●Skin that burns easily: Individuals with fair skin that burns easily and has difficulty tanning are at a higher risk of melanoma.
●Sunlight exposure: Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight is a significant risk factor for melanoma. Both intense and cumulative sun exposure contribute to the risk.
●Severe, blistering sunburns: People who have experienced severe sunburns, particularly during childhood or adolescence, have an increased risk of melanoma.
●Lifetime sun exposure: The more extensive the total amount of sun exposure over a person's lifetime, the greater the risk of developing melanoma.
●Tanning: While tanning can offer some protection against sunburn, it does not eliminate the risk of melanoma. Spending time in the sun without proper protection, even for individuals who tan easily, increases the risk.
●Use of sunlamps and tanning booths: Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sunlamps and tanning beds, can contribute to skin damage and increase the risk of melanoma.
●Personal history of melanoma: Individuals who have previously been diagnosed with melanoma have a higher risk of developing additional melanomas.
●Family history of unusual moles or melanoma: Melanoma can run in families, especially when there is a history of multiple close relatives with the condition. Inherited genetic disorders like xeroderma pigmentosum and familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome can also increase the risk.
●Weakened immune system or immunosuppression: Individuals with a compromised immune system, such as organ transplant recipients, individuals with certain inherited immune disorders, or those with lymphoma, have an increased risk of melanoma.
It is important to note that having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee the development of melanoma, but it does increase the likelihood. Regular skin examinations and preventive measures like sun protection can help mitigate the risk of melanoma.
Consultation with a dermatologist: Regular visits to a dermatologist are crucial for skin health. Dermatologists have the expertise to identify suspicious lesions and perform biopsies if necessary. If you notice any concerning changes on your skin or have any questions or concerns, it is important to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist promptly.
To prevent skin cancer, you can take the following measures:
●Sun Protection: Limit your sun exposure, especially during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Seek shade, wear protective clothing (such as long sleeves, hats, and sunglasses), and use broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF 30 or higher) on exposed skin.
●Avoid Tanning: Avoid using tanning beds and sunlamps, as they emit harmful UV radiation that can increase the risk of skin cancer.
●Regular Skin Examinations: Conduct self-examinations of your skin to monitor for any changes in moles, such as new moles or alterations in size, shape, color, or texture. If you notice anything unusual, consult a dermatologist for further evaluation.
●Protect Children's Skin: Shield children from excessive sun exposure, as early-life sunburns can contribute to the development of skin cancer later in life. Use sunscreen, dress them in protective clothing, and keep them in the shade.
●Be Sun-Smart: Practice sun-smart behaviors, such as seeking shade, avoiding sunburns, and using protective measures even on cloudy days, as UV radiation can still penetrate through clouds.
●Be aware of your risk factors: Understand your personal risk factors, such as having a family history of skin cancer or having numerous moles, and take appropriate precautions. Discuss your risk factors with a healthcare professional if necessary.
●Regular Check-ups: Schedule regular skin check-ups with a dermatologist, especially if you have a high risk of skin cancer or a history of skin abnormalities. They can conduct thorough examinations and provide guidance on preventive measures.
Remember, prevention is key, but early detection is equally important. By practicing sun protection and being vigilant about changes in your skin, you can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer and improve your chances of early intervention and successful treatment.