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When a Mole Is Something More


While most of the world was watching Australian Olympic swimmer Mack Horton win gold at this summer's games there was one perceptive fan that observed something else during his 400-meter swim. The eagle-eyed observer noticed a suspicious looking mole on the swimmer's chest and contacted the swim team doctors to look into it further.

This past week Horton had the mole removed and took to social media to thank the anonymous viewer for emailing the team and giving him a heads up to have it treated. He did not release any diagnostic information on the lesion, but was grateful for the help of a fan.

"In many cases melanomas are the ugly duckling on the body. People can sometimes pick them out even from an untrained eye," Julia Curtis, MD, assistant director of the mole mapping program at the Midvalley Health Center.

When discovered in its early stages melanoma has a survival rate of 97 percent. However, as it grows and spreads the survival rate can drop to 17 percent. Additional skin cancers, such as squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma, are less likely to spread, but can be disfiguring if not treated properly. All skin cancer carries some risk and the American Cancer Society estimates that one in five Americans will contract some form in their lifetime.

Dr. Curtis encourages individuals to regularly partake in self-skin exams and take account of every spot on their body from moles to freckles to age spots. Individuals should look for moles that have different characteristics from other ones on their skin.

"Photographing your skin with a mole-mapping machine is very helpful. Mole mapping is effective when a dermatologist takes photos of all areas of your body to create an 'inventory' of lesions," explained Dr. Curtis. "Using these photos with your self-skin exam monthly engages you in the surveillance for skin cancer when you are at high risk for developing it, as well as lets your physician more accurately follow changes in your skin."

While many people believe that melanoma most often occurs in an existing mole, nearly 70 percent of melanomas are new and 30 percent arise from changing moles. Mole mapping works best for both new and changing moles.

"It offers a full spectrum of protection from changing, existing moles to new moles that may be missed without a map for comparison. Not only does mole mapping catch skin cancer earlier, it also decreases the number of biopsies, reduces pain and scarring from biopsies, and also decreases cost for the patient."

Curtis believes that Mack was lucky for the national exposure to encourage him to seek evaluation and diagnosis of the spot. While the best option is personal engagement in our health care, sometimes we need external persuasion to lead us to medical assistance. The University of Utah mole mapping program recently expanded from the Huntsman Cancer Institute to the Midvalley Health Center next to Fashion Place Mall.