An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions

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  • Cancerous moles are more prevalent than ever, with 14,445 new melanoma cases in the UK each year*. So do you have an itchy, raised or bleeding mole you’re worried about? Faye M Smith discovers how getting clued-up on the signs of skin cancer could save your life…

    Moles: some people think they add character, many of us don’t notice them, while others can’t stand them. But, however you feel about moles, you’ve probably got at least one. “There’s not really a normal amount, but less than 50 moles would be compatible with most of the population,” says Dr Ross Perry, skin cancer expert and medical director of CosmedicsUK.

    Moles occur when cells grow in a cluster instead of spread throughout the skin. “These are called melanocytes, and they make the pigment that gives skin its natural colour,” says Dr Ross. Got more moles than most? It’s probably down to your family. “Our genetic make-up has a lot to do with the number of moles we have,” explains Dr Ross. “Plus, high amounts of sun exposure means we are more likely to develop more.”

    When weather warms up, being aware of your moles – and, if they are changing – is key for surviving skin cancer, as 86%** of cases are said to be preventable. This is vital since melanoma rates in the UK have risen faster over the last 30 years than any other of the current top 10 cancers. According to Cancer Research UK, the rise in cancerous moles has been caused by cheap package holidays in the 60s and 70s, plus the desire for a Hollywood glow, especially for those of us in our 50s and 60s.

    cancerous moles: legs are the most common place that melanoma appears

    “The legs are the most common site on the body for melanoma in females,” says Dr Mahto.

    Cancerous moles: an expert’s guide to spotting skin cancer

    Mole changes: what makes a mole become a cancerous mole?

    Most moles are harmless and will look the same for many years. “Yet, in theory, all moles have the potential to change into a skin cancer,” warns Dr Ross. So it’s important to check even the ones you’ve had since childhood. “Non-cancerous moles are often termed along the lines of how they look, such as warty moles, flat moles, raised moles, flat moles with ring of white around them, and freckles,” says Dr Ross.

    The majority of melanoma cases in adults are new moles, usually due to either long-term or short periods of over-exposure to the sun. UVB rays penetrate less deeply and cause sunburn, while UVA rays go deeper into the skin, causing longer-term invisible damage. So, if your skin has gone pink or red it’s a sign it has been damaged by too much UV radiation.

    And it doesn’t have to be sunny for your skin to be at risk. “Even if you can’t see any blue sky, a significant amount of UV rays can still get through the clouds – even in the UK,” warns Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “You can even be affected indoors as UVA radiation can penetrate glass, such as a car window or conservatory.”

    Digital dermatoscope used to examine a mole on a patients arm, close up.

    What does a cancerous mole look like?

    Know how to spot a suspicious mole advises Dr Mahto. “If a mole shows any of these features, it should be seen by your GP who will refer you to a dermatologist to exclude melanoma. They will perform a full skin examination and may either excise a mole, take a sample or biopsy.”

    Follow the ABCDE rule! A suspicious mole that may be a cancerous mole has one or more of the following attributes:

    • Asymmetry: one half of the mole is different to the other.
    • Border: irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge.
    • Colour: uneven colour or variable colours within a mole.
    • Diameter: the mole is bigger than 6mm in size (roughly a petit pois size)
    • Evolving: the mole is changing in its size, shape or colour.

    Plus, look for any new moles, a mole that looks significantly different to the others (known as the “ugly duckling” sign), or any skin lesion that bleeds or fails to heal.

    “The legs are the most common site on the body for melanoma in females,” says Dr Mahto. And watch out for delicate areas, like lips. “The lower lip tends to get more sunlight than the upper lip, and is therefore more likely to be affected by skin cancer.”

    Signs of skin cancer and cancerous moles

    There are 5 main signs of skin cancer to look out for:

    • Changes to an existing mole:

      • – Asymmetric (one half of the mole is different to the other)
      • – Has a border or an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge
      • – Uneven in colour or variable colours within a mole
      • – Large with a diameter exceeding 6mm in size (roughly a petit pois size)
      • – Evolving: the mole is changing in its size, shape or colour
        cancerous mole size

        A mole that measures 6mm or larger should be treated as suspicious and checked by a doctor

    • A new mole developing that is significantly different to the others

    • A mole or skin lesion that bleeds or fails to heal

    • A mole or skin lesion that itches consistently

    • Dark spots or streaks in your nails: In rare cases, malignant melanoma can develop in the skin around and under nails. Look for a persistent, usually dark, spot or streak.

    How to check for skin cancer and cancerous moles

    “Check your body once a month and seek medical advice early,” says Dr Mahto. “Study your moles after a bath or shower in a well-lit room with the aid of a full-length mirror. Look closely at the entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles, including between the fingers and toes. Seek assistance from a trusted individual to examine the hard-to-see areas.”

    Types of cancerous moles

    There are three types of cancerous moles:

      • Malignant melanoma. Typically: Dark black mole, often flat, irregular edge. Very dangerous with a high risk of spreading. Caught late it can be fatal, but caught early it’s easily removed.
      • Squamous cell carcinoma. Typically: Red moles or a reddish lump on the skin that can bleed and ulcerate. Moderate risk of spreading.
      • Basal cell carcinoma. Typically: Either a flat red patch of skin that bleeds or is painful but also a reddish lump. Has a low risk of spreading.

    Pictures of cancerous moles

    Pictures of cancerous moles: malignant melanoma

    Malignant melanoma, with a scale bar to show the size.

    cancerous moles: malignant melanoma

    A malignant melanoma

    cancerous moles

    Basal cell carcinoma

    cancerous moles: Squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer

    Squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer

    cancerous moles: Basal cell carcinoma

    Basal cell carcinoma

    How to prevent skin cancer and cancerous moles

    Despite sun exposure being a key factor in developing skin cancer, 23%*** of Brits admit they don’t use any sun cream. Stay safe by avoiding the sun when it’s at its hottest between 11am to 3pm, wear a hat with a wide brim and always apply sun cream. Not sure what to choose? “A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean the sunscreen is better quality,” says Dr Mahto. “Look for SPF 30 or more to protect against UVB, and the UVA circle logo and/or 4 or 5 UVA stars to protect against UVA.” Get into the habit of applying your sunscreen before venturing outside as SPF needs up to 20 minutes to sink in.

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    Mole removal: is it safe?

    Want to get rid of your moles for vanity reasons? Show them to your GP first. “As long as the moles are not overly numerous or irregular in colour or shape then there is no positive or negative to having them,” says Dr Ross. But removal won’t, unfortunately, reduce your risk of skin cancer in the future. “Moles can be safely removed for cosmetic purposes but it won’t decrease your risk of skin cancer. This is because 70% of all melanomas are NEW moles. So removing moles to reduce your skin cancer risk is not advisable.”

    My cancerous mole story: a woman&home reader shares her experience

    Woman&home reader, Denise Palmer-Davies, 40, from Surrey came to regret her sun loving youth: “I would apply oil without using SPF”

    “About four years ago, I noticed I had a small, flat mole on my back which kept on growing. After about a year, I went to see my GP, but I was told it was nothing. I went back again after having my second child as it had grown significantly, but was told it was a skin infection. I then asked a friend, a skin specialist, to take a look and he told me to see my GP again.

    On this occasion, I explained it was now irritating me. I also said that my mum had melanoma three times and my grandfather died from skin cancer. This time, pictures were taken of the mole and sent to Dermatology. Less than 24 hours later I was called as they believed it was a type of skin cancer – it was removed less than a week later. I would urge anyone who is worried to monitor their moles by taking regular pictures. Personally, I will never sunbathe again – it just isn’t worth it.”

    *Derma Plus Skin Cancer Index 2018, **Cancer Research UK, ***YouGov

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