When you inspect your skin, you’re particularly checking for new moles and making sure that the ones that are already there haven’t changed in appearance.. But do you know what to look for? Would you be able to recognize moles that could be potentially cancerous? Here are some helpful tips.
Healthy Moles and Cancer Moles
To begin, it’s useful to focus on the differences between healthy and potentially cancerous moles.
Healthy moles often have these characteristics:
- Color. Light tan or brown in color.
- Shape. Usually oval or round in shape, with a sharp border around the edges.
- Texture. Smooth skin, even if the mole is raised.
- Size. Small — usually around a quarter-inch in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser).
- Quantity. A small number of moles, fewer than 40.
- Location. Mostly on the upper portion of the body, often the face, arms, chest, neck, and back.
Cancer moles often have these characteristics:
- Color. May be many different colors — pink, red, brown, or tan.
- Shape. Looks different from other moles on the body, and usually has an irregular shape and border.
- Texture. Scaly, crusty, bumpy, or rough texture.
- Size. Larger than normal, often larger than a pencil eraser.
- Quantity. Having large numbers of moles (more than 100).
- Location. Appearing on the head beneath the hair, on the breasts, or on the buttocks. May also appear on the back, face, neck, arms, and chest.
What to Do About a Suspicious-Looking Mole
If you find a mole that looks suspicious, show your doctor immediately. “If it’s new or changing, that could be a sign of a cancerous mole,” says Martin Weinstock, MD, chairman of the Skin Cancer Advisory Committee at the American Cancer Society and professor of dermatology and community health at Brown University in Providence, R.I. If your doctor suspects a mole may be cancerous, a biopsy can confirm it. During a biopsy, a small sample of the skin tissue from the mole is collected and examined to determine if the cells are cancerous.
When a cancerous mole is identified, it needs to be removed right away so that the cancer doesn’t spread beyond the skin and affect other parts of the body. There are several ways to get rid of moles, and the procedure is often simple.
“Treatment for cancerous moles is surgical removal — they are cut out,” Dr. Weinstock says. How the mole is cut out will depend on such factors as the size of the mole, where it’s located, and how deep it goes. Weinstock says mole removal is commonly done in an office, and a local anesthetic is used.
- For small moles that don’t need stitches after removal, your doctor may do a shave excision, in which he numbs the skin and cuts the mole out of the skin with a small knife. The doctor may also choose a procedure called a punch biopsy, in which a tool similar to a cookie cutter is used to get rid of the mole.
- For larger or deeper moles: Some cancer moles require minor surgery to cut out the entire mole. In this surgery, the mole is cut out of the skin, along with a portion of the healthy skin that surrounds the cancer mole.
Know Your Moles
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to use sunscreen regularly and to check monthly for suspicious-looking moles. Knowing the signs of cancerous moles can make it easier to identify them at an earlier stage. If you find anything that looks suspicious, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible.