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Whack-a-Mole: Signs Your Mole Needs to Go

Moles Shoulder

Mariah Carey sports one. Robert DeNiro has one too. Supermodel Cindy Crawford even made hers famous. We are talking about moles, and as much as moles and freckles can be a unique part of your identity (as they should), they also need to be watched for signs of skin cancer.

Experts say that nearly 70 percent of melanomas are new moles, but 30 percent appear from changing moles. "The most important thing to keep in mind about melanoma is that early detection is the key," says Glen Bowen, MD, clinical director of the Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute. "Check your skin, take note of all the spots from moles to freckles to age spots."

Considered the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma is up to 97 percent curable when found in its early stages. But if it spreads to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate drops as low as 17 percent. One of the most effective ways to track changing patterns is through mole mapping.

What is Mole Mapping?

The idea behind mole mapping is that it's often difficult for patients to keep track of the positioning and changes in moles on their skin. "Mole mapping is effective when a dermatologist takes photos of all areas of your body to create an 'inventory' of lesions," says Julia Curtis, MD, assistant director of the mole mapping program at Midvalley Health Center. "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." The procedure takes about 15 minutes and creates a comprehensive overview of your skin.

Learn Your ABCs of Skin Cancer Prevention

Another important part of skin cancer prevention is the self-skin exam. When examining your skin's surface, look for moles that don't fit the pattern and appearance of those surrounding it. Douglas Grossman, MD, PhD, from the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute is an expert in the early diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers. By following a simple scale from A to E, we can better detect alarming signs of possible skin cancers.

Asymmetry—Is the mole rounded or irregular in shape?

Border—Is the diameter of the mole irregular and lacking a clear border?

Color—While most moles or freckles are uniform in color, problematic moles have different colors.

Diameter—If a mole is larger than a pencil eraser (around six millimeters or .25 inch), it should be examined by a doctor. Most moles are harmless.

Evolution—But, more importantly, has the mole changed in size and appearance?

The American Cancer Society also says to look for these warning signs:

  • A sore that doesn't heal
  • Signs of pigment spreading from the border into surrounding skin
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole
  • Itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • Changes in the surface of a mole—scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump

As plans for outdoor summer activities heat up, be sure sun protection and skin cancer prevention are part of those plans. In addition to tracking the changes in your skin's appearance, wear sunscreen, don't forget your hat and sunglasses, and try to avoid the hours when the sun is strongest (10am to 4pm). By practicing cancer prevention today, you can enjoy many fun seasons in the sun in the future.