Melanoma - How Knowing Your ABC's Could Save Your Life

Melanoma is the least common, yet most deadly form of skin cancer. Of all diagnosed cases of cancer of the skin, only about 5% are melanoma. Yet melanoma accounts for virtually all skin cancer deaths. In its early stages, melanoma is almost always curable and unlike other forms of cancer, it is very easy to spot.

The most common form of melanoma is the superficial spreading variety. This form of melanoma starts on the surface of the skin and stays on the surface for a while, before spreading deeper into the skin. Whilst in its superficial surface stage, removing the melanoma is likely to completely cure the problem.  A melanoma can start either in an existing mole, or as a completely new mark on the skin. Any new mole which appears after the age of 40 should raise suspicion for melanoma.

The characteristics of superficial spreading melanoma can be summarised by the mnemonic "A, B, C, D". Knowing the ABC's of melanoma can quite literally save your life.

A - Asymmetry

Normal moles tend to be symmetric whereas melanomas display some degree of asymmetry. If you imagine folding the lesion in half, if both sides do not match, the mole is asymmetric.

B - Border

A melanoma usually has a raggedy, ill-defined, blurred or notched border. In contrast, the borders on a normal mole are smooth and well defined.

C - Color

Benign moles are usually a single shade of brown. Melanomas are often made up of a mixture of different colours including brown, black, tan and red.

D - Diameter

Normal moles usually measure less than 6mm - the size of a pencil eraser or less. Melanomas are generally over 6mm when diagnosed. However, do not ignore lesions under 6mm, particularly if they display other suspicious characteristics.

Some dermatologists have proposed adding an 'E' to the mnemonic for Evolution. If a mole is changing, growing bigger, itching or bleeding, it should be examined by a doctor.

If you have a mole with any of the above characteristics, don't panic. Most suspicious lesions turn out not to be melanoma. Nevertheless, they should be checked out to rule out skin cancer.

It is a good idea to get into the habit of checking your skin at least once a month. Stand naked in front of a full length mirror and enlist the help of your partner to examine the parts you can't see. Don't forget to check your scalp, behind your ears, the soles of your feet and the bits where the sun doesn't shine! Melanoma can occur on any part of the body, even the parts which aren't exposed to the sun.

If you have a lot of moles, photography is a good way of keeping a check on them all. Take a snap of your skin once a month, and if you do think a mole is changing, then you have a handy reference to compare it with.

Melanoma is the easiest cancer to cure when caught early. By learning the ABCD of skin cancer and carrying out regular skin checks, you are giving yourself a great chance of early detection.