Moles are perfectly normal and extremely common dark patches on the skin, which do not usually cause us any harm or discomfort.
Most people will have moles on their body. They are often written into our genetics, and the pattern of the moles will be unique to each individual. Some of us are born with some moles, but most people acquire moles during the course of their lifetimes. The majority of people will not develop any new moles once they have reached 20 years old.
There are three classifications of moles, which are as follows:
Congenital moles are those which are present when we are born. Only around 1% of the population are born with any moles on their body. These moles may be at increased risk of developing cancerous cells.
Acquired moles make up the majority of moles which are found on the human body. They usually appear during childhood or adolescence and are normally perfectly harmless. They are not usually related to exposure to sunlight, but instead are thought to appear as a result of our genetics. They normally measure less than a quarter inch in diameter, and are unlikely to develop cancerous cells.
Atypical moles are the ones which usually attract the most cause for concern, although the majority of these will not develop cancer either. A mole is considered to be ‘atypical’ if it measures more than a quarter inch in diameter, has an irregular shape, is made up of different colors or is raised above the surface level of the skin. They tend to be a trait which runs in certain families, and they can develop cancerous cells.
Although most moles are completely harmless, in some cases, they can be a sign of skin cancer.
When a patient develops skin cancer, abnormal cells in the skin begin to grow and multiply at an uncontrollable rate. Skin cancer develops when there is unrepaired damage to DNA inside skin cells, which is most often caused by exposure to UV radiation from sunlight. The radiation damages the skin’s DNA and causes genetic defects, known as mutations, within the skin cells. This causes the cells with the defects to start multiplying very quickly. The build up of these mutated cells in one place in the body forms a tumor.
While the majority of moles found on the body will be utterly harmless, it is also possible that the moles will develop abnormalities, and form one of the easiest ways of detecting melanoma or other forms of skin cancer.
There is a handy way of remembering what you are looking out for in your moles, using the first 5 letters of the alphabet.
Most healthy moles are vaguely circular in shape, with both halves looking the same. Moles which are not symmetrical, i.e. one half is different in appearance to the other, could be a sign of melanoma or others forms of skin cancer and should be checked immediately.
The majority of normal and healthy moles will have a clearly defined border with the rest of the skin. It is easy to tell where the mole ends and the rest of the skin begins. The border should also be smooth, with no indents, scalloping or zig zags. Moles with a fuzzy or irregular border could be a sign of skin cancer, and should therefore be checked by a medical professional.
Healthy moles are usually just one color. You shouldn’t see one color in the center and another at the edges, or notice a fading from dark to light across the mole. If you notice a mole which has more than one color present, it could be a sign of something serious, so go and get it checked.
Normal moles do not usually measure more than a quarter inch in diameter. Scan the body for moles larger than this, as they might be a sign of skin cancer, or a high risk area for developing cancer. If in doubt, find a pencil with an eraser on top. Use this as a size guide for your moles. You should be worrying about anything larger than the eraser.
Keep an eye on your moles over time. Most of us will develop all our moles by time we are 20, and they shouldn’t change after this. If you notice changes in color, size, shape or the border of a mole, this could be a sign of melanoma or other types of skin cancer.
In addition to the five factors listed above, patients should also be looking out for new moles. Most of us won’t develop any new moles once we have reached adulthood, so new moles appearing on the skin could be a sign of cancer. Try to keep a record of your moles, so that you can tell if a new one appears.
You should also be wary of any moles which are causing you any pain or discomfort. If moles start to become itchy or sore, or if they start to bleed, make an appointment with your dermatologist.
A mole doesn’t have to meet all of the criteria above to be a sign of skin cancer. Any one of these factors on their own could be an indicator that cancer is present.
Remember: Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, so use a mirror to check areas of your body you might not normally be able to see, or ask a partner or family member to check for you.
If you are worried about any of the moles on your body, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist as soon as possible. Skin cancer is a disease which progresses very quickly, so do not waste time in making your appointment.
If you doctor is also worried about the mole, they will usually remove it fairly quickly. Removing moles is a very straightforward procedure. The dermatologist will simply numb the area of the mole itself and then either shave or cut the skin to remove the mole. Depending on the size of the area affected, they may have to put in a stitch or two to close the wound.
Once removed, the mole will be sent to the lab for testing. Technicians will examine and test the mole to check for cancerous cells. The time that this takes will depend on the particular medical institution you go to. If no cancerous cells are detected, then no treatment will be required. If cancerous cells are found in the mole, the doctors will have to undergo more tests to work out the extent of the cancer, and formulate a treatment plan with you.
There are a few different types of treatment for skin cancer, which include:
Not all of the treatment methods listed above will have the same effect on different types of cancer. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer or melanoma, your doctor will talk through your various options with you, and will make recommendations for treatment based on your own individual circumstances.
The outlook for patients diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers is generally very good.