You’ve heard that moles can turn into melanoma, a dangerous skin cancer. Early identification is so critical as this cancer has an over 95% cure rate if caught in its early stages. You’re no dermatologist though, and you’re nervous about whether you can properly identify the signs.
Melanoma is like the boogeyman in dermatology, and indeed it is the most deadly skin cancer by far. While being the rarest of the three common skin cancers, BCC (basal cell carcinoma), SCC (squamous cell carcinoma), and melanoma, it accounts for the most fatalities. The thought of melanoma can make a lot of patients anxious about checking their moles properly. Patients are right to be concerned about their health and to check their moles regularly, but they need not be paranoid or overly anxious about the process.
Step 1: You’re the security guard, not the police officer.
Some people get overwhelmed with the thought of trying to identifying the various signs of melanoma in moles. Everything seems so complicated and you’re worried you might get it wrong. Luckily you’re not there to be Dr. House; you’re there to be a first witness.
- You aren’t diagnosing–even doctors rely on specialized tools and labs to confirm the diagnosis. You want to know if you have reason to see a doctor, and it’s ok to be on the safe side.
- You or your partner is like a security guard when screening your moles. If you think something is suspicious, you call the police just to make sure things are ok.
- In North America at least, doctor checkups are not mandatory. This means that the onus is on you to take the first step in protecting yourself.
Step 2: All it takes is 5 minutes.
Unless you’re a person at high risk (like having the previous history of melanoma) in which case you should have been specifically instructed to be seeing a dermatologist regularly, 5 to 10 minutes once in 2 months is all it takes for peace of mind.
- Stand in front of a full-length mirror to start. The room should be well lit.
- Start with the top, at the scalp. Part your hair with a brush to check it section by section.
- Check the face and neck area, and pay particular attention to areas like the back of the ears that are harder to see.
- Move down your body. Ideally, have a partner or family member check your backside and underarm areas that are hard to see yourself.
- Unlike most skin cancers, melanoma is a skin cancer that can affect areas that aren’t typically sun exposed. It’s important to check everywhere. The fingernails are also a potential site.
Step 3: The ABCDEs of Melanoma
Medical students love mnemonics since they have a ton of things to memorize. For you, it’s optional, but it can help remember key things to look out for.
- A is for Asymmetry. When one side of the mole looks different from the other, this is a potential warning sign.
- B is for Borders. The edge or border of the mole is often irregular and difficult to define in cancerous moles. Typical moles have clearly defined borders.
- C is for Color. You should be looking for two or more colors in a single mole. Typical moles are a single hue of brown or dark brown/black. Melanomas can have multiple colors.
- D is for Diameter. Melanoma lesions are typically larger than 6mm while most moles are not. Pay attention to moles that are large in particular.
- E is for Evolution. The most important factor–changes in the mole. You know what your mole looks like, so note what’s atypical for your mole. Patients often have a “bad feeling” about a certain mole, and they’re often right. Patients usually know what’s normal for them, and it’s a good idea to have a dermatologist look at it if you suspect that something might be off.
Unofficially, F is for Feeling. If you have a bad feeling about a certain mole, don’t ignore it just because it doesn’t neatly fit the criteria above. Patients self-reporting a bad feeling have had strong correlations with there being a problem. This is likely because the patient knows best what’s typical and what’s not for their mole.