Moles and Melanoma

A mole is a growth on or in the skin. Another name for these growths is nevus. Moles develop when melanocytes—the cells that make melanin, a pigment in your skin—grow in clusters or nests. Some moles may be present at birth, but most moles seem to appear later in childhood. Most people may continue to make new moles until around the age of 40. In fact, it’s common for most adults to have between 10 and 40 moles—all totally healthy. Some moles even tend to fade away on their own in older people.

What are some signs that a mole may be atypical? You should see a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening if a mole shows any of the following signs:

  • Develops in adulthood
  • Changes color
  • Changes shape, texture or height
  • Starts to itch
  • Begins to bleed or ooze
  • Has overlying skin that turns dry or scaly
  • Becomes hard or lumpy

What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a specific type of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes, the cells that make your skin’s pigment. Most melanocytes are in our skin. Additionally, melanoma can also develop in the eye, digestive tract and other areas of the body. In women, melanoma most commonly develops on the back or lower legs. In men, it’s often found on the head, neck or back. Patients with darker skin are less likely to develop melanoma than people with fair skin; when it does develop in people with dark skin, melanoma is often found on the palms of the hands, under the fingernails, under the toenails and on the bottoms of the feet.

People with the following risk factors have an increased chance of developing melanoma:

  • Atypical or “dysplastic” moles
  • More than 50 moles
  • A history of severe, blistering sunburns
  • A personal history of melanoma. If you’ve had one melanoma, you may be at increased risk of developing another
  • Skin that burns easily, as indicated by a fair or pale complexion, red or blond hair, blue or gray eyes, and many freckles
  • Certain medical disorders, including some genetic conditions and types of cancer
  • Various medications, including those that weaken the immune system
  • A family history of melanoma, including close relatives who have had it

Melanoma is a potentially dangerous form of skin cancer because, if left untreated, it’s likely to invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, bones or brain. Melanoma is responsible for a vast majority of deaths from skin cancer each year. The earlier it’s detected and removed, the more likely treatment will be successful.

The first sign of melanoma may simply be a change in shape, size or color of a mole. Sometimes, however, melanomas may also appear as brand new moles; consequently, a board-certified dermatologist should examine adult patients with any new moles or other suspicious lesions.

Your DermOne affiliated dermatologist diagnoses melanoma by doing a thorough skin exam. This may involve the use of a dermatoscope, a special instrument that gives your provider a magnified view of your moles. Next, if your provider is concerned, he or she will ask your permission to have the abnormal-appearing skin tissue removed surgically. Called a skin biopsy, this minor surgical procedure typically takes a few minutes and can be done in your doctor’s office. The sample is then sent to a lab, where it’s processed so that a pathologist can examine the tissue under a microscope, checking closely for melanoma cancer cells.

You can start protecting your skin by having periodic skin cancer screenings, limiting your sun exposure and avoiding sunlamps and tanning booths. Having a suntan or sunburn means that your skin has been damaged. The more damage you do to your skin, the greater the chance of developing melanoma. After your DermOne affiliated provider performs a thorough skin exam, he or she will teach you how to check yourself regularly for early signs of melanoma.