Monitoring moles and looking for changes on a regular basis is key to early detection and treatment of melanoma, doctors say.
However, patients tend to notice only moles they can easily see by themselves in the mirror.
"I tell my patients to have their significant other check them from top to bottom, front to back," says Dr. Riza Tady Conroy, a family medicine physician at Ohio State University Medical Center. "By doing that at least once a year, they will know if something has changed or not, and can seek medical treatment. A skin exam should be part of the annual health check-up."
Moles, which are clusters of pigmented cells that can occur anywhere on the body, can be a precursor to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Each year in the United States, more than 1 million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed, including about 60,000 cases of malignant melanoma. An estimated 8,000 people will die from melanoma this year.
The disease is highly curable, however, with early detection and proper treatment, Conroy says.
Skin cancers are divided into two groups: non-melanomas and melanomas. Non-melanomas include basal cell cancers and squamous cell cancers, and they are the most common forms of skin cancer. They are usually linked to sun exposure and are curable if removed early.
Malignant melanoma beings in the skin pigment cells. Melanoma cells produce melanin, which causes the melanoma to appear in varied shades of tan, brown and black. Sometimes the disease begins in or around the area of moles or other dark spots in the skin. The disease will spread if not diagnosed and treated early.
Conroy urges patients to see a doctor if they notice suspicious changes to their skin, including moles. The areas of skin at greatest risk for developing cancer include the scalp, ears, neck, face, arms and hands, Conroy says.
"Patients often will ask me to check their moles for cancer when they notice that the mole has changed color, shape or size," says Conroy, who often will do a biopsy or refer patients for follow-up with a dermatologist.
Conroy urges patients to remember their A, B, C's (and D and E) when monitoring moles.
"A stands for asymmetry, meaning that one half of the abnormal area is different from the other," Conroy says.
B is for border; malignant moles tend to have irregular edges.
C is for color; malignant moles tend to have more than one color, including red or black. Benign moles usually have only one color.
D is for diameter. Generally, moles that are larger than 6 millimeters could indicate skin cancer.
E is for evolution. Look for any changes in size, color or symptoms of moles, including bleeding.
To decrease risk of developing skin cancer, Conroy encourages everyone to wear sunscreen on a daily basis and to avoid peak sun rays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
"And remember to slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat," Conroy says.
Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the Ohio State University Medical Center