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'Mole Patrols' Protect Against Skin Cancer

Changes could signal melanoma

FRIDAY, July 12, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Join the melanoma mole patrol. It could save your life.

That's the advice of dermatologists, who say if people were more familiar with the moles that dot their bodies, they'd notice any change in shape or color -- a potential warning flag for skin cancer.

"The average person does not understand that a little spot on their skin could be life-threatening. Or they are ignorant about what they should look for," says Dr. Richard A. Miller, a senior member of Bay Dermatology Associates in Port Richey, Fla.

Most moles are harmless. However, a change in size, shape or color may indicate a developing melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer and the fastest-growing cancer in the United States.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 53,600 new melanoma cases will be diagnosed this year, and 7,400 people will die of the disease.

Despite the rising numbers, most people are less aware of skin cancer than they should be, says Miller, who is interviewed in the July issue of Sun and Skin News, a publication of The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Undiagnosed or advanced melanoma can spread through the lymphatic system, often invading the brain and liver, a potentially fatal development, Miller explains.

However, a melanoma always gives early warning signs and is 99 percent curable if caught in its beginning stages. However, people need to know what to look for, Miller says.

A simple way to examine a mole and decide if it's unusual enough to warrant medical attention is to follow the American Academy of Dermatology's "ABCD" signs of melanoma.

A mole needs a doctor's opinion if:

  • It's asymmetrical. If you draw an imaginary line through its center, and the one half does not match the other half.
  • Its borders are fuzzy and fade into the skin. Normal moles have sharp, distinct borders.
  • The color is variegated. Instead of a solid hue, shades of tan, brown, black or even purple streak the blemish.
  • Its diameter is larger than 6 millimeters.

Miller cautions that the above criteria don't apply to all moles. They are meant as a guide, rather than a foolproof diagnostic technique.

For instance, a mole or other types of skin blemishes greater than six millimeters in diameter, but displaying none of the other cautionary characteristics, may be harmless. Alternately, some moles may appear innocuous and then, for no obvious reason, they itch, bleed or burn. That could be a cause for concern, Miller says.

Audrey Kunin, president of DERMAdoctor.com, says she has seen normal-looking moles turn out to be cancerous.

"You have to take into account what's going on with the rest of the person," she says. "So if you have tons of moles and freckles, but you have one pinpoint jet black mole -- even if it's round and evenly colored -- if it's sticking out like a sore thumb, you should get it seen."

Miller recommends people conduct monthly self-checks and visit a dermatologist as frequently as their individual profile suggests.

For example, people with fair skin and hair and light eyes are more susceptible to skin cancers and should have themselves examined every six months. However, someone with a personal or family history of skin malignancies should be seen every three months.

What To Do

To learn how to spot skin cancer on your body, visit The Skin Cancer Foundation. For more on melanoma, check the National Cancer Institute.

Sources: Richard A. Miller, D.O., senior member, Bay Dermatology Associates, Port Richey, Fla., and, fellow, Florida Society of Dermatologic Surgeons and American Academy of Dermatology; Audrey Kunin, M.D., president, DERMAdoctor.com, medical director, Kunin Cosmetic Dermatology, and assistant clinical instructor, dermatology, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City
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