Moles are very common. These small brown skin spots, which are usually round and either flat or elevated, often appear within the first few decades of life, sometimes following sun exposure. Many people are aware that one of the most common warning signs of melanoma — a very aggressive form of skin cancer — is an atypical mole. But, some people are less certain about what that actually means and how to differentiate a normal mole from early-stage melanoma. This information is important for everyone to know because, when detected early, melanoma can often be successfully treated and even cured.
To help prevent melanoma and promote its early detection, the experts in the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center encourage everyone to perform thorough monthly self-examinations of their skin. It is essential to become familiar with any moles, birthmarks, blemishes or other skin characteristics in order to learn how they usually look and feel. The best way to accomplish this is to examine the entire body from head to toe using both a full-length mirror and a handheld mirror. Be sure to check all areas, even those that are rarely or never exposed to the sun. The scalp, underarms, fingernails, genitals, the bottoms of the feet and the areas between the toes should be checked as well.
To help you know what to look for, we recommend the easy-to-remember acronym “ABCDE,” which stands for the key characteristics of an atypical mole:
- Asymmetry — Unlike normal moles, which are usually evenly proportioned, atypical moles are often asymmetrical. In other words, a line drawn through the middle of an atypical mole would not create two matching halves.
- Border — While normal moles typically have sharp, well-defined borders, atypical moles tend to have “hazy” or irregular borders. Instead of having a sharply defined outline, the mole may appear to gradually fade into the surrounding skin.
- Color — Normal moles are uniformly tan, brown or flesh-colored. In contrast, atypical moles have irregular coloring that may include various shades of tan, brown, red, blue or black.
- Diameter — Atypical moles usually (but not always) measure .25 inches or more in diameter. As a frame of reference, envision a pencil eraser.
- Evolution — Noticeable changes in a previously stable mole, or the appearance of a new mole after age 40, always warrant evaluation.
In sum, melanoma often appears as an asymmetrical, irregularly bordered, multicolored skin spot that continues to increase in size over time. Other mole features to watch for include itching, pain, elevation, bleeding, crusting, oozing and swelling. If a mole has any of these characteristics, it is important to bring it to the attention of a physician. A physician can examine an atypical mole with a dermatoscope, which is a handheld magnifying device that allows visualization of internal skin structures and colors that cannot be seen with the naked eye. A physician may also recommend removal of an entire mole or a portion of it for further analysis in a lab.
If you’d like more information on how to protect yourself from melanoma and other types of skin cancer, call Moffitt Cancer Center at 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online to request an appointment with an expert in our Cutaneous Oncology Program. We do not require referrals.