Moles and Skin Cancer - The Warning Signs

Moles are formed when skin cells produce too much of a pigment called melanin as a result of exposure to sunlight. Most people have at least one mole somewhere on their body, and some people have literally hundreds. The vast majority of moles are harmless, and they are normally nothing to worry about, but they can occasionally develop into malignant melanoma, which is essentially skin cancer that starts in a mole. This is why it is extremely important to get to know any moles that you have and to check them regularly.

The appearance of moles varies enormously from person to person and from mole to mole, and knowing what's normal for moles in general, and what's normal for you, is a key first step to noticing when something isn't right. The surface of a mole can be smooth or rough, have hair growing on it or have no hair at all. Some moles are raised above the level of the skin, but others are completely flat. The color of a mole might be anything from black at one end of the spectrum to pale brown or sometimes even skin-colored at the other. This is all considered to be normal and is no call for concern. So what should you be looking out for?

The main warning signs are summed up by the 'ABCD rule':

  • Asymmetry -- the two halves of a mole look different to each other.
  • Border -- the edge of a mole is irregular or blurred.
  • Color -- the color of a mole is not uniform.
  • Diameter -- a mole is more than 6mm across at its widest point.

There is still a good chance that a mole with one of the ABCD warning signs is nothing but a false alarm, so try not to panic, but if any of your moles has one or more of these characteristics, then you should see a doctor immediately. Getting these moles checked out as soon as possible is vital, just in case there are cancer cells present. If there are, then the sooner they're found, the sooner treatment can begin and the less chance there is of the cancer spreading to other areas.

It's worth noting that some people have a higher risk of skin cancer than others. Women are more susceptible in general, as is anyone with a weakened immune system, or who sunbathes a lot, has had sunburn in the past, has pale skin or freckles, or has a high number of moles on their body. But even if you're fortunate enough to not fall into any of these categories, any change in your moles should still be taken seriously, regardless of the time period involved. The change could be a bleeding, itchy or crusty mole, a change in the size, color or shape of a mole or just a new mole appearing.

There is some very good advice available to help you minimize the risk of skin cancer. Avoiding tanning beds and limiting exposure to strong sunlight, especially between 11am-3pm, will certainly lessen the chances of developing melanoma, as will regularly applying sun block, even on cloudy days when you're outside for a long time. If you're a parent, you should be particularly vigilant with your children, as there may well be a link between sunburn at a young age and skin cancer at a later date.

Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are or how many precautions you take, cancer will always be a lottery that nobody wants to win, and you may still be unlucky. But keeping an eye on your moles can allow you to get a head start when it comes to fighting back, so pay attention to them -- they could end up saving your life.