While there are certainly deadlier and higher-profile forms of cancer, skin cancer is the most common form of them all, making up nearly half of all cases in the United States. Each year, more than 3.5 million cases of skin cancer and skin cancer moles are diagnosed nationwide, and more than 76,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed. Melanoma is the most serious kind of skin cancer, and will lead to more than 9,000 deaths, out of the total 12,000 approximate skin cancer deaths every year.
So it’s clear that, while a highly common form of cancer, only a small minority of cases is very dangerous. Regardless, skin cancer is nothing to be taken lightly. It’s a serious condition, but one that, with some diligence, is easy to detect and prevent.
Skin cancer typically manifests as a mole, an otherwise harmless discoloration of the skin that, in rare cases, can run amok and spread cancerous cells to other parts of the body. There are some basic ways to detect such abnormal moles early, and some risk factors and tips that can help prevent this form of cancer from developing in the first place. And if detected, there are steps a doctor can take to greatly cut a patient’s risk.
As always when dealing with medical concerns, if you have reason to believe you have any signs of cancer, contact a doctor immediately.
Normal Moles and Types of Skin Cancer Moles
Moles are normally occurring features of the skin, small patches that are usually pink, tan or brown and have a distinct edge. They occur when melanin, the substance that colors the skin, builds up in high concentrations. There are three main types of skin cancer, and a few other, far less common types. The first two, basal and squamous cell skin cancers, or non-melanomas, are usually not serious and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma, however, accounts for the smaller and most dangerous cases of skin cancer. Even melanoma, however, has a 91% five-year survival rate.
There are some key risk factors to watch out for that may influence the frequency with which you conduct self-examinations.
Most people have moles, and quite a few. But people who have more than 50 common moles have a greater chance than others of developing the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma. In addition, people who have light skin or hair and don’t tend to tan face a higher risk. On that same note, people who have had multiple severe sunburns in the past, including those that have blistered and peeled are at a higher risk. Generally, unprotected or excessive exposure to sunlight or UV light can increase your likelihood, including use of tanning booths.
How to Tell Normal Moles from Cancerous Moles
To identify problematic moles that could indicate skin cancer or could potentially turn into skin cancer doctors recommend regularly performing self-examinations for warning signs. Particularly if you have any of the risk factors above, doctors recommend you examine your skin on a monthly basis. Skin cancers detected and removed early can almost always be stopped in their tracks.
To perform a self-exam, undress in a room that is well lit and preferably has a full-length mirror. A hand mirror also helps to look at hard-to-reach places, and a blow dryer will allow you to examine your scalp. Doctors also recommend paper and pencil to flag any spots that you want to keep an eye on long term, using printable body maps available online. There are also higher-tech approaches, such as skin mapping programs that dermatologists sometimes employ. Start with the head and continue systematically down to the feet, careful to examine out-of-sight places like armpits, back and buttocks.
In terms of what you’re looking for, there are a few big things that could be cause for concern—any change in size, shape, color or elevation; oozing or bleeding; or a mole that looks different from other moles, or is itchy, bumpy, hard or tender to the touch.
Dermatologists advise using a list of factors that are easy to remember, as they correlate to the first five letters of the alphabet. They are:
- Asymmetry – When one half of a mole does not match the other half.
- Border that is irregular – A normal mole will usually have a distinct edge, but sometimes the edge can be ragged or blurry, as though it’s spreading to the surrounding skin.
- Color that is uneven – Most normal moles are all one color, usually pink or brown. Watch out for patches of different colors.
- Diameter – The size of the mole. Sometimes they are very small, but usually cancerous moles are larger than 1/4 inch, or about the size of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving – If a mole has notably changed since your last examination.
What to do
While this list can help identify potential problems, the only way to diagnose melanoma is by performing a biopsy, removing the tissue and checking it for cancerous cells. The take-home point here is, if you see something unusual or exhibiting any of these signs, take it seriously and tell a doctor. It’s one of the simplest life insurance policies you can give yourself. If a mole is melanoma and goes untreated, cancerous cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body.
If you visit your doctor and he or she agrees a mole is a potential problem, there will likely be a biopsy to determine if there are cancerous cells. However, if a mole is small, dermatologists will often opt to remove it entirely up front. If detected early, removal of a mole can drastically reduce any risk. However, if cancerous cells have already spread, there are also treatment options, including chemotherapy or radiation.
Again, with such a preventable and detectable form of cancer, a small amount of diligence can ward off any serious problems down the line.