Well this is just the case with one of the most deadly of cancers, and one of the leading causes of death in young adults. Malignant melanoma or cancer of a mole, often just referred to as melanoma, can be easy to spot with a simple skin check done by trained professionals. And when caught early, is a simple matter to completely cure with a surgical removal.
So let’s review something that we should all know about. The ABCDE’s of melanoma, a short hand way of saying Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolution. These are the common tell tale signs that a dark spot on your skin may be a problem. Garden variety moles tend to have symmetry, that is, one half of the mole looks a lot like the other half, almost like a mirror image. They also tend to have smooth borders, not jagged or irregular edges. And most tend to have smaller diameters, under 6 millimeters or about the width of a pencil eraser. Melanomas are often not symmetric, or have irregular borders and diameters greater than 6 millimeters, especially if not caught early. But the most important of the ABCDE letters is E for evolution, that is the appearance of the mole changing over time, usually growing and developing darker or more varied colors. As melanomas are cancers, and the hallmark of cancers of all kinds is uncontrolled growth (that’s why they are so dangerous), any mole or dark spot on the skin seen to be growing over time should be evaluated.
As you might guess, we don’t all have the same chances of developing a dangerous skin cancer like melanoma. But you would be at a higher risk if you had a bad sunburn as a child or young adult, or if you have over 100 moles on your body or have a number of larger, irregularly shaped moles even if you do not have over 100. You’re also at higher risk if you have a close family member such as mother or father, sisters or brothers who have had melanoma or if you have had one yourself already. And lastly, you’re even at higher risk if you have a so-called white-collar job. This is probably because you are more likely to spend weekdays inside and then go out on the weekends and accidentally burn, than someone who spends part or much of their jobs outdoors. A good resource for more information and lots of helpful photos and links is my professional organization, the American Academy of Dermatology at www.aad.org.
I encourage all of us to get checked for this generally easy to detect, but deadly if missed skin cancer when you are able. If you feel you are probably no more than the average risk, then check with your primary care providers. All will have some training in detecting these kinds of cancers. If you feel you may be at higher risk for skin cancer including melanoma, then I would recommend seeing a dermatologist specifically. Our training includes 3 full years of intensive study and examination of the skin. This is at least hundreds of times more education than that of our primary care colleagues who are not specialists in this area. In addition, in our office we use the dermatoscope for all patients having a skin exam. This exciting new tool allows us to examine moles with polarized light under 10X magnification, and makes it possible to see much more detail than ever before, often saving the need for a biopsy “to be sure”. No extra charge is ever made for this important service. Consider asking if your doctor is using one too.
So this new year, let’s be Skin Smart and take the simple step to check this off your list of important things to do. Your loved ones deserve it, and you certainly do too!
Kerry Shafran, MD, FAAD
Founder, Riva Dermatology