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How to tell if you have melanoma

March 9, 2021 • read

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How to tell if you have melanoma

Every year, over 80,000 Canadians are diagnosed with skin cancer. Fortunately, with early intervention, the prospect of recovery is bright. The five-year survival rate of someone diagnosed with skin cancer is 99% when the cancer is treated in early stages. That’s why regularly checking moles for warning signs of melanoma could be a life-saving practice.

What is melanoma?

There are three types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. With melanoma, cancer begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that give colour to pigmented tissue. You have melanocytes in your eyes, skin, and liver. It’s possible to develop melanoma in all three places, but it’s most commonly found on the skin. Since moles have a high concentration of melanocytes, they’re often the starting point for melanoma. 

Your skin is made up of several layers, and each layer is composed of cells. Melanocytes live in the deepest layer of the skin. They normally multiply and shed in a controlled way. Melanocytes become cancerous when they start to multiply rapidly, forming tumours. 

Most of the time, melanoma forms on parts of your body that have been exposed to the sun, like your face, back and legs. However, it’s possible for melanoma to develop anywhere on the body. It doesn’t always start in a mole. People with darker skin are less likely to develop melanoma. If they do, it’s often on their palms, nail beds, and soles of the feet. 

Melanoma risk factors

Although we do know the conditions that make melanoma more likely, we still don’t know exactly why it occurs. Risk factors for melanoma include:

  • Age 35-75.
  • Lighter skin, regardless of shade.
  • Blonde or red hair.
  • Having more than 50 moles.
  • Having large moles, greater than two inches in diameter.
  • Noticing new moles, or that your moles are changing in size or shape.
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer.
  • History of severe sunburns. 
  • History of tanning bed use.
  • Weakened immune system.

Men are at a slightly higher risk of developing melanoma than women. In Canada, 1 in 42 men, and 1 in 56 women will develop melanoma during their lifetime.

Melanoma symptoms

Most people have moles, and they’re not automatically a cause for worry. Taking time to learn what yours look like can help catch melanoma early. When doing your mole check, look out for these warning signs:

  • Mole is painful or itchy.
  • A new mole that’s flat, resembling a freckle.
  • Changes in shape or colour to a mole you’ve always had.
  • A new spot that’s a combination of colours like red, blue, white, black, or brown.
  • Moles that suddenly have a smooth surface when they were once scaly.
  • Eroding or oozing moles.
  • Moles with uneven borders.
  • Asymmetrical moles, where one side is a very different shape than the other.

If you have moles that are bigger than a pencil eraser, or a large cluster of moles, check these sites often. They have a higher likelihood of becoming melanoma.

Should I see a dermatologist for my mole?

If you’re worried about whether or not a mole you have is melanoma, there’s a way to determine whether you should see a doctor. It’s the ABCDE method, which stands for:

A — asymmetry.

B — irregular or uneven borders.

C — dark in colour.

D — large in diameter, over a quarter inch.

E — evolving over time.

If your mole displays any of the above characteristics, see a dermatologist as soon as possible. They’ll do further examinations and tests to help you determine whether or not you need to undergo treatment for the worrisome mole.

Mole mapping

Mole mapping, sometimes called dermal scanning, provides an in-depth look at the health of your skin. Using technology called FotoFinder Automated Total Body Mapping (ATBM) Master, you can get full-body pictures to share with your dermatologist. The scanning machine creates high resolution images of your moles and lesions. Then it uses artificial intelligence to flag possible skin cancer. Your dermatologist can use your scan results to inform a personalized treatment plan. 

Anyone can benefit from mole mapping, but it’s especially useful for people who have one or more risk factors for developing melanoma. 

Melanoma stages and treatment

If your mole turns out to be melanoma, the treatment varies depending on the stage of the skin cancer. Melanoma stages are broken down into early and advanced stage melanoma. There are numbered phases under both stages.

Early melanoma includes cancer stages 0 to II, and affects the surface layers of the skin. In these stages the cancer hasn’t spread to lymph nodes, and is up to 2 mm in size. Treatment involves removing the affected mole or skin.

Advanced melanoma includes stages III and IV cancer. It’s characterized by cancer that’s spread within the skin or to at least one lymph node near the original cancer site. At the most advanced stage, cancer has spread to other areas on the skin, faraway lymph nodes, and other organs in the body. Treatment involves procedures like radiation and chemotherapy. 

Prevention

There are daily habits that you can practice to lower your risk of melanoma. Consider working some of the following tips into your routine:

  • Use sunscreen daily that’s SPF 30 or higher — including in wintertime.
  • Stay out of the sun, especially around midday when it’s brightest .
  • Keep your skin covered by long layers of clothing.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Keep kids safe from sunburns, since bad sunburns increase the likelihood of melanoma later in life.

Between checking your moles at home and mole mapping technology, there’s never been more options for beating skin cancer. Early intervention is key, so consider working mole checks into your at-home health routines.

Mole mapping is a great practice for preventing skin cancer. Book an appointment to learn about your skin’s health in-depth.

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