Some moles are completely harmless, and others can lead to skin cancer. What may look like a common mole could actually be very dangerous. Regular mole screenings ensure that abnormal growths are detected before they spread and become hard to treat. The earlier skin cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better. It’s much easier to completely remove cancerous growths in the early stages, and it’s also less likely that the growth will spread to other parts of the body if treated early.
Moles are extremely common among virtually all people, especially those with fair skin. A mole is a raised spot on the skin that is generally darker than the surrounding skin. It might also be called a beauty mark.
There are many types of moles, but in general, a mole is nothing to be concerned about. All types of moles should be monitored as changes may indicate a certain type of skin cancer. Changes in the size, shape and/or color of a mole and/or the formation of a new mole may indicate the presence of melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer. The good news is that melanoma is curable if caught early. Therefore, it is important to always have concerning moles and blemishes looked at, and to always make yearly skin checks a priority to monitor any changes.
Moles in children are not unusual and they may grow or change color as a child grows. This is not usually an indication of skin cancer. Some my even disappear in adolescence. People with a high number of moles, with some larger than 1.5 mm, are at an increased risk of melanoma. People with fair skin are more likely to have many moles and they are also more sensitive to sun exposure. Regular mole checks and screenings are necessary for people with these risk factors.
A mole can appear individually anywhere on the body, or they may appear in clusters on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun. Moles, in the absence of skin cancer, are not harmful or medically significant. Some people may wish to have moles removed for cosmetic reasons. A dermatologist might also remove a mole, if it looks suspicious, to have it biopsied.
It is possible for a mole to turn into skin cancer, so keep a close watch on your moles. Immediately visit a doctor if you notice any changes in appearance. Warning signs that a mole has become cancerous include color changes, changes in size both big or small, texture, hardness, itchiness and bleeding or oozing.
After a mole screening, your doctor may determine that one or more of your moles should be biopsied or removed. Depending on the type of mole and whether skin cancer is present, your doctor will create a treatment plan for your particular case.
Biopsies are samples of body tissue taken in order to test for cancer cells. Your tissue sample will be extracted and then sent to a lab for testing. Once testing is complete, a specialist will contact you to discuss your biopsy test results and next steps for treatment.
The two most common biopsy methods include the shave and the punch techniques. Your doctor will select the best method for your biopsy based upon the location and type of mole.
Shave Biopsy– The shave biopsy method is used when a mole raises above the surface of the skin. A scalpel is held parallel to the mole and then moved in a straight motion to remove the skin sample.
Punch Biopsy– The punch biopsy is advantageous in flat moles where the shave technique would leave behind a visible divot in the skin. Using a specialized punch tool selected to fit the exact mole size, the instrument is pressed downward with a back and forth turning motion. Forceps are then applied to elevate the skin sample, and scissors are used to snip the skin from fatty tissue. Punch biopsies require stitches to close the wound.
If your doctor determines that cancer is present or that your mole is likely to become precancerous or cancerous, the mole will need to be completely removed. There are three methods for mole removal.
Electrodessication and Curettage– The dangerous cancerous cells are initially removed with a curette. The next step involves an electrodessication tool which chars the sides and the base of the cancerous cells and is then removed. Ultimately, this technique is effective at eliminating cancerous tumors.
Surgical Excision– Similar to biopsies, moles can be surgically removed using either the shave or punch method.
Cryosurgery– During treatment, liquid nitrogen is applied with a cryogun to the center of the mole, forming an ice ball in the center until the entire mole is frozen. The treated area will gradually heal, and any dead skin and scabs will naturally detach during the healing process.
Melanin is the pigment found deep within your skin cells. This melanin is produced and delivered throughout the skin by cells called melanocytes. Sometimes excess melanin and melanocytes cluster together, causing moles. Within these clusters, melanocytes may mutate or trigger surrounding cells to mutate, causing skin cancer.
Common Moles– A regular mole is the result of the growth of melanocytes. Many people have below 50 moles on their body. These growths are usually found above the waist on areas exposed to the sun. They are seldom found on the scalp, breast, or buttocks.
Moles can be present at birth but can also develop throughout life typically up until someone is in their 40s. In older people, common moles tend to fade away.
A common mole is relatively smaller compared to the size of one’s pinky fingernail. It is round or oval shaped with a distinct edge and can be described as looking like a dome. A common mole usually has an even color of pink, tan, or brown for someone with fair skin. However, an individual with darker skin will likely have a darker mole.
Atypical Moles– Formally known as dysplastic nevi, atypical moles look different from common moles. They are usually bigger than common moles, and their color, surface, and borders may be different. Atypical moles can be mixed variations of different colors. They typically have a flat smooth, slightly scaly, or pebbly surface. They also have irregular edges that often fade into the surrounding skin.
Atypical moles can occur anywhere on the body, but they are usually seen in areas exposed to the sun, such as the back. Rarely, they may appear in areas not exposed to the sun, such as the scalp, breasts, and areas below the waist.
Some people only have a few atypical moles, while others have more than 10. People who have multiple atypical moles usually also have a greater number of common moles. Most atypical moles do not turn into skin cancer, remaining stable over time. Researchers estimate that the chance of skin cancer is about ten times greater for someone with more than five atypical moles compared to someone who has none. The more atypical moles a person has, the greater the chance of developing skin cancer.
If you look closely at your skin, you may notice darkened spots that are not moles. Freckles are the most common of these spots. Unlike moles, they are rarely larger than the size of a pea, although sometimes they may seem to be because they blend into one another. Sun exposure may make freckles darker and they may fade completely in the winter. While moles may appear anywhere on the skin, freckles ordinarily are limited to sun exposed
areas, such as face, neck and upper back. After a person reaches middle age, he or she may acquire other dark areas that are not moles. The brown, wart-like growths appear on the face or trunk and look as if they are stuck to the skin may be seborrheic keratosis.
Multiple small gray-brown spots that may appear on wrists, backs of the hands, forearms, and face could be actinic lentigines. These are also called “liver spots” or “age spots”. Both actinic lentigines and seborrheic keratosis are easily diagnosed by your dermatologist and are not cancerous.