Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. But not every strange looking or itchy mole is a deadly melanoma. In fact, most moles and spots are harmless.
How do you know when a mole is more than an innocent spot? Let's debunk some of the most popular mole myths to find out.
Myth #1: All atypical moles are cancerous.
Moles come in all shapes, colors and sizes, and most are completely harmless. Generally, “normal” moles are smaller than a pencil eraser, round and symmetrical with an even color and smooth borders. Most fall into three categories: flat moles, raised moles or skin tags. These do not need to be removed for medical reasons.
Other moles, however, are considered “atypical.” These are usually asymmetric, very dark or multi-colored and may have indistinct borders. Though these moles, also called dysplastic nevi, are not considered to be normal, they are not necessarily cancerous either. Unusual, atypical moles simply look different than healthy, normal moles when viewed at the cellular level.
Atypical moles may sometimes look like melanoma, but most are non-cancerous. They should still be checked by a dermatologist though. Statistics show that individuals with 10 or more dysplastic nevi moles have a higher risk of developing skin cancer down the road.
Myth #2: Most skin cancer is melanoma.
There are many different kinds of skin cancer. Melanoma, the deadliest form, causes around 79% of skin cancer deaths. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women aged 25–30 and the second leading cause of cancer death in women aged 30–35. Yet melanoma only accounts for 4% of all skin cancer cases.
Basal cell carcinoma is actually the most common type of skin cancer with almost a million new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. In fact, as many as 30% of Caucasians may develop basal cell carcinomas during their lifetime. Basal cell carcinoma typically begins as a small, shiny bump on the face, though it can occur on any part of the body. It is rarely life threatening if caught and treated early but can spread to nearby bone or tissue if left untreated.
Other types of skin cancer include actinic keratosis (pre-cancerous lesions that can develop on sun-exposed areas and may be a warning sign that cancer is developing) and squamous cell carcinoma (a type of cancer that develops in the outer layer of skin on areas of the body that are most exposed to the sun). Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma is rarely life threatening but can spread if left untreated.
Myth #3: Skin cancer is a death sentence.
Skin cancer is the result of the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. When skin cells suffer DNA damage, they can mutate and multiply quickly to form cancerous or malignant tumors. Though it is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., skin cancer is actually highly treatable if detected early.
If affected cells stay clustered in a single group, the skin cancer is considered “low risk.” If abnormal cells invade surrounding tissue, the cancer is considered “high risk.” Skin cancer detected before it spreads has a very high recovery rate.
Melanoma can spread quickly and become deadly if not diagnosed early. This type of skin cancer can take many different forms. It can start as a sore that doesn’t heal or a mole with an irregular border that becomes red or swollen. Itchy moles or moles that have tenderness or pain can also be early indicators of melanoma.
#4: Moles that don’t follow the ABCDEs are okay.
Suspicious, potentially cancerous moles typically follow the ABCDEs:
- Borders that are ragged
- Color that is non-uniform
- Diameter of roughly ½ inch or larger
- Evolving appearance
"Though the ABCDEs are a good guide to follow, it is important to note that not all melanomas look suspicious," says U.S. Dermatology Partners of Kyle physician Alex Jack. "Some have a uniform color, are symmetrical and have a completely normal border. To be safe, have a dermatologist check any suspicious mole — including any new mole that appears after age 40 or one that changes unexpectedly."
Know your skin and monitor your moles at home for any changes. Screen your skin on your own each month and have a dermatologist perform a skin exam every six to 12 months. Skin cancer can appear almost anywhere, so check everywhere on a regular basis — even between your toes and on the bottoms of your feet. If you can’t see a part of your body, ask someone you trust to help check your skin and take pictures of abnormal moles as a reference point.
To learn more about the early warning signs of skin cancer or to schedule a skin exam with one of our certified dermatologists, contact U.S. Dermatology Partners today.