Can you explain to us what moles are, and how we get them?
Moles are made of the cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce pigment called melanin and are evenly distributed through the skin, giving the skin its natural color. People of all races and skin colors have the same number of melanocytes, but melanocytes of darker skin individuals make more melanin. When melanocytes make a cluster, they form a mole.
Moles can come in many colors (brown, pink, white, blue or gray — depending on how much melanin is produced by the melanocytes); sizes (very small or very large, sometimes covering half of the person’s body); and shapes. We usually wind up with moles because of our genetic makeup, but it is also possible to get them as a result of sun exposure. We are born with some, but they also may develop later in life.
Are moles inherently dangerous?
Moles are not inherently dangerous, but on rare occasions they become malignant if the person has a genetic predisposition and, possibly, is exposed to harmful sun rays. Those moles may turn into melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Having said that, most commonly melanoma starts on normal skin without a pre-existing mole.
What might cause a person to develop melanoma or another type of skin cancer?
There are a few factors that may contribute to a person developing melanoma. The first one is our hereditary disposition, or the genes we get from our parents, which is out of our control. Secondly, age is certainly a factor, because we develop more genetic mutations as we grow older, which are what increase our chances of developing melanoma or other forms of cancer. Lastly, sun exposure plays a large role in our skin health, and if we aren’t careful, it can have detrimental effects.
How can people tell if they have a mole that is developing into melanoma?
A common abbreviation used is the ABCDE test. Each letter stands for a different criterion that is important to check for a mole or skin abnormality. “A” is for asymmetry. If a mole is asymmetrical, meaning if you draw a line down the middle and get two very different halves, it may be a warning sign of skin cancer. “B” is for border, noting that malignant moles may have uneven or notched borders. “C” is for color. Often, benign moles will be one color, so if a mole is multi-colored it may be a warning sign. “D” is for diameter, as malignant moles will usually have a larger diameter than benign ones. And “E” is for evolution, or change over time in the size, shape, color, or symptoms, such as developing itching, bleeding, or pain in the mole.
Is there one letter in ABCDE that is most important?
I always tell my patients that the “E” for evolution or change is the most important warning sign for melanoma. While some benign moles may be slightly asymmetrical, or may have two colors, any sort of evolution or change in a mole should be taken seriously and could be significant. Moles can transform in many ways — in color and size — but they also may start to become itchy or painful. Don’t brush off the change in the mole as nothing. Seek an evaluation by a specialist.