Cindy Crawford, Eva Mendez, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Rachel McAdams… They all have big, fat, beautiful moles, right upfront. So it’s hardly surprising the phrase ‘beauty spot’ is used when describing a facial mole.
Elsewhere on our body, though, it’s a different story. In fact, the subject of moles has become fraught, with shocking skin cancer headlines, each more alarming than the last, leering ominously at us from news and health websites. The dark brown marks on our body seem to be at the heart of the skin cancer threat, their presence being one of the most sure signs of dangerous melanoma.
Having moles doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer though. But how can you tell? Luckily, it’s pretty easy. You just need to remember your ABCs (and Ds and Es):
Assymetry: if the shape of your mole is lopsided or uneven, this may be cause for concern. Normally, moles are completely symmetrical.
Border: if your mole has jagged or blurry edges, that’s not a good sign. ‘B’ can also stand for ‘bleeding’ – very worrying in a mole.
Colour: if your mole changes colour, lightens or darkens, has more than one colour or is uneven in colour, speed-dial that dermatologist.
Diameter: if your mole is larger than the width of a pencil, there’s a chance it may be cancerous.
Elevation: you don’t want your mole to be raised or have an uneven surface.
Check all moles on your body regularly, and consult a dermatologist if anything looks suspicious. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in South Africa, but your chances of survival are very high IF the cancer is detected early.
Types of mole
Actinic keratosis, not quite a mole but still good to know about, is a precancerous growth that should be removed. It appears as a rough, pink and/or red-toned patch that is scaly and itchy.
Basal cell carcinoma is a small reddish patch that looks like a scab and may bleed. It’s cancerous, but can be treated successfully if treated early. It usually occurs on the face.
Melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – looks like a mole (brownish), but will have one or more of the ABCDE characteristics mentioned above. It spreads quickly, but is curable if detected early.
It’s a common misconception that having all your moles removed will reduce your chances of developing melanoma. There’s absolutely no reason at all to have a mole removed if your dermatologist has given it cancer clearance. However, some moles might be pre-cancerous (which your dermatologist would confirm), and it would be prudent to have it removed in order to prevent it from developing into a cancerous growth. Of course, you may wish to have a mole removed for cosmetic reasons, in which case the method of removal will be different.
Moles that are suspected to be cancerous must be cut out completely, and the wound is then cauterised (burnt). Stitches might be necessary. The mole will then be analysed, and if found to be malignant melanoma, a larger portion of skin might need to be removed. (If the mole is on your face, consider consulting a plastic surgeon).
If a mole is suspected of being cancerous but does not necessarily warrant removal, your dermatologist should take a photo of it and check up on it annually.
Moles removed for cosmetic reasons will usually just be ‘shaved’ flush with the skin, and left to heal without stitches or cauterisation. Be sure to only let an experienced, qualified professional perform mole removal, as there is a small risk of nerve damage and/or infection.