Most of us have between ten and 40 moles by the age of 40. More than 99% are benign, but with 2,500 people dying from melanoma-related illness each year in the UK, it pays to stay aware. Rates of malignant melanoma are rising more rapidly than any other form of cancer. If you’re under 55, you’re 63% more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer than you would have been two decades ago. The good news? When detected early, it’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer. So are your moles a cause for concern? Read on to find out…
A mole is a cluster of melanocytes (skin pigment cells). Some moles are present from birth, but most are formed as a result of sun exposure. Benign moles are typically 4-6mm in diameter with distinct, neat edges, a smooth, dome-like surface and even pigmentation. However, benign moles may become cancerous, so it’s important to watch existing moles for changes, even if you’ve had them for as long as you can remember.
Experts advise performing a full body mole check at least once every three months (or once a month, if a close relative has been diagnosed with skin cancer in the past). You’re at greater risk of developing malignant melanoma if you have previously been sunburned or used sunbeds. People with lots of moles (more than 50) are also more likely to develop malignancies. Cancerous moles are often found on the back, shoulders or backs of legs, but can appear anywhere. Remember, moles can also be found on the scalp, ears and even under fingernails and toenails.
Cancerous Moles: The ABCDEs
The golden rule? If you’re concerned, get it checked. However, these are the warning signs to look out for, also known as the ABCDEs:
Non-cancerous moles are symmetrical.
The outline of a malignant melanoma is often fuzzy, jagged or irregular.
Can you see more than one colour in the same mole? Malignant melanomas can vary in shade from brown to black, blue or orange, and are often multi-tonal. Cancerous moles often become darker, although moles can also darken with age or pregnancy.
Most cancerous moles are wider than 6mm (about the diameter of a pencil). However, some are smaller.
If you develop a new mole after the age of 40, or notice changes (e.g. in colour, texture or size) to an existing mole, you should have it checked. Cancerous moles may bleed or produce discharge, or become crusty, swollen, itchy or painful.
What to Do if You’re Worried
If you have concerns about a mole, you should see your GP in the first instance, who can refer you on to a dermatologist. Don’t panic – more than nine in ten moles referred to hospital dermatologists turn out to be benign. If you don’t want to wait, or simply want to set your mind at rest with a full body screening, you can book an appointment at a private skin clinic. Skin Health UK offers a £175 SkinCheck mole screening service.