Regular Mole Checks May Prevent Skin Cancer

When it comes to the health of your skin, it’s a good idea to be proactive and keep an eye out for dangerous moles. This is especially true if you already have moles on your body, or if you have a family history (a close relative) of moles. In addition to limiting your exposure to sunlight and using sunscreens, examining yourself for moles can allow for early detection and treatment.

If you or a close relative have moles, you should examine your body once a month. Most moles are benign (non-cancerous). The only moles that are of medical concern are those that look different than other existing moles or those that first appear after age 20. If you notice changes in a mole’s color or appearance, have a dermatologist, a doctor who treats disorders of the skin, evaluate it. You also should have moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, appear scaly, or become tender or painful.

What should I look for when examining my moles?

Examine your skin with a mirror. Pay close attention to areas of your skin that are often exposed to the sun, such as the hands, arms, chest, and head. If your moles do not change over time, there is less cause for concern.

The following ABCDEs are important signs of moles that could be cancerous. If a mole displays any of the signs listed below, have it checked immediately by a dermatologist:

  • Asymmetry—One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border—The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular.
  • Color—The mole has different colors, or it has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
  • Diameter—The diameter of the mole is larger than the pencil eraser.
  • Elevation/Evolution—The mole appears elevated (raised from the skin); or are the moles changing

You should always be suspicious of a new mole. If you do notice a new mole, see your dermatologist as soon as possible. He or she will examine the mole and take a skin biopsy (if appropriate). If it’s a melanoma, a biopsy can often show how deeply it has penetrated the skin. Your dermatologist uses this information to decide how to treat the mole.

The most common location for melanoma in men is the back. In women, it is the lower leg. Melanoma is the most common cancer in women ages 25 to 29.

Moles can develop in other locations, in addition to the skin. If you have a family history of melanoma, you should consider having check-ups with an ophthalmologist and a gynecologist to look for moles in these special locations.

How should I examine my skin?

  • Examine your skin after a bath or shower, while your skin is still wet.
  • Use a full-length mirror if you have one. Start at your head and work your way down, looking at all the areas of your body (including the front, backs, and sides of each area, and your fingernails and toenails). Also be sure to check the "hidden" areas: between your fingers and toes, the groin, the soles of your feet, and the backs of your knees.
  • Don’t forget to thoroughly check your scalp and neck for moles. Use a handheld mirror or ask a family member to help you look at these areas.
  • Keep track of all the moles on your body and what they look like. Take a photo and date it to help you monitor them. This way, you’ll notice if the moles change. If they do change in any way (in color, shape, size, border, etc.), see your doctor. Also see your doctor if you have any new moles that you think are "suspicious."
  • Pay special attention to moles if you’re pregnant, going through menopause, or at other times when your hormones might be surging (including the teen years).

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