Know Your Moles: When You Should Be Concerned about Melanoma

When it comes to skin growths that can lead to melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – Dana-Farber oncologist Elizabeth Buchbinder, MD, stresses the importance of both surveillance and a sense of history.

“Moles are formed when skin cells known as melanocytes grow in clusters, and most never cause any trouble,” Buchbinder explains. “The best way to stop melanoma early, before it can spread, is understanding what to look for.”

If you develop moles, she says, watch them over time. Are they changing in shape, size, color, or texture? Is one changing faster than the others? Is it bumping out of the skin, or itching, bleeding, or hurting? If so, it is best to get this troublesome mole looked at by a dermatologist.

Family history is also an important factor. There is a hereditary predisposition for melanoma, she stresses, so if your parents, siblings, or other close relatives have had the disease, you are at an increased risk, and should see a dermatologist regularly even if you don’t notice any new or suspicious moles.

“A primary care physician will look for moles on your back and chest, but a dermatologist will look between your toes and underneath pockets of skin where they can hide,” says Buchbinder, an oncologist within the Center for Melanoma Oncology. “Dermatologists also use a dermatoscope, a magnifying light that can expose more concerning patterns in moles not visible to the eye, as well as how deeply the pigment of a mole is deposited in your skin.”

Not every “bad” mole is easy to identify, Buchbinder warns – some can be skin-colored or pink and difficult to see in a mirror. For reasons like this, she advises following the “ABCDE” method recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) to self-screen monthly for melanoma and other skin cancers in moles and birthmarks:

  • A – Asymmetry, or when one half of the mark appears different than the other.
  • B – Border, when the mark has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border.
  • C – Color, if the mark is varied from one area to the other. It might have shades of tan, brown, black, or be white, red, or blue.
  • D – Diameter. Melanomas are usually bigger than 6mm, or the size of a pencil eraser. In some cases, they can appear smaller.
  • E – Evolving, when a mole or mark looks different than others on your body, or different than it used to.

Learn more about melanoma treatment and research at Dana-Farber.