When Is a Mole Just a Mole (and When Should You Be Worried)?

As the body’s largest organ, skin should get as much care and medical attention as other parts of the body – but it often doesn’t.

Of all cancers, skin cancer is the most common, with more than 5.4 million cases treated every year in the United States. It is also the easiest cancer to treat, if diagnosed early. When allowed to progress, though, skin cancer can lead to disfigurement and death. With regular self-examination and physical exams performed by a doctor, people can detect skin anomalies earlier and live longer, better lives.

“Ideally, a self-examination should be done once a month to spot changes in the skin,” says Hong Nguyen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Mission Heritage Medical Group.

“It would be a good idea to start off with a full-body exam at the doctor’s office to establish that all existing moles, freckles and spots are normal, and get them treated if they aren’t.”

Here are some types of skin growths to become familiar with, and some to watch out for.

Non-cancerous types of skin growths
There are many kinds of non-cancerous skin growths, such as benign tumors, and they do not usually cause serious problems. However as with any skin condition, if lumps, bumps, spots or sores appear to be growing or changing, consult a doctor so they can be identified and treated if necessary.

  • Moles are nearly always harmless. A normal mole can be flat, raised, oval or round, and tends to be an evenly-colored brown, tan or black. Most people have moles, and unless the color, shape or texture changes, they should not be a source of worry.
  • Warts are benign growths caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), and look like rough, flesh-colored lumps or bumps. While not a serious condition, warts can be spread via skin contact.
  • Seborrheic keratosis is a non-cancerous type of skin growth that commonly appears on the face, chest, back or shoulders. They often appear as tan, brown or black raised spots with a waxy texture or rough surface. They are not contagious, and no treatment is medically necessary.

Cancerous types of skin growths
There are many types of skin cancer, each of which can look different on the skin.

  • Basal cell carcinoma accounts for about 8 out of 10 of all skin cancers. These usually develop on areas exposed to the sun, especially the face, head and neck, but they can occur anywhere on the body.

Basal cell cancers can be flat or raised, shiny or opaque, and may have one or more abnormal blood vessels visible. They can appear as pale, pink or red areas, with blue, brown, or black variations. Larger basal cell carcinomas may have oozing or crusted areas. Some cancers have translucent bumps that may bleed easily.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for most of the other 20 percent of skin cancers. They can start out as actinic keratoses (AKs), small, scaly pre-cancerous skin patches that cannot easily be distinguished from true cancers. For this reason, a doctor may recommend treating an AK to be on the safe side.

Squamous cell carcinomas are typically found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, lips, ears, neck and the backs of hands. They can appear as flat reddish or brownish patches, and often have a scaly or crusty texture. They tend to grow slowly and can usually be treated successfully if found early.

  • Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, with almost 80,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Melanoma accounts for less than 1 percent of all skin cancer cases, but is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths.

Use the “ABCDE rule” to look for common signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: One side of a mole doesn’t match the other
  • Border: The edges are irregular, ragged or indistinct
  • Color: The color is not uniform and may have patches of brown, black, white, red or blue.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser (about ¼”)
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color

Not all melanomas fall into exact categories, however, so make a note of any of the following and discuss with your doctor:

  • New spots
  • Spots that look different than others on the body
  • Swelling or redness outside the borders of a mole
  • Any sore that doesn’t heal
  • Itching or pain
  • Scaly, bleeding or oozing

“Both cancerous and non-cancerous skin growths can look similar to each other, so when in doubt, get it checked,” cautions Dr. Nguyen. “See a doctor if you have any suspicious lumps, bumps, sores or spots that are new or changing. When found and removed early, skin cancers can almost always be resolved with good, long-term results.

“If it turns out that skin cancer is diagnosed, a specialist can explain the various treatment options and their common side effects. And there is a wealth of information and services available to see patients through treatment and after-care periods, so they can have the best quality of life possible.”

To avoid skin cancer in the first place, one should adopt a complete sun-protection regimen.
Keep covered up: wear long sleeves, a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Use the best quality sunscreen available -- and enjoy the outdoors in the shade.

Learn more about Dr. Nguyen. Learn more about Mission Heritage Medical Group.

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