Skin cancer is one of the most common of all human cancers. Early skin cancer diagnosis and management is crucial for preventing its long-term consequences. While regular skin checks are a must, being able to tell the difference between skin cancer or mole is important. So, if you see any changes or worrying signs in between appointments, you know to get it checked.
Common differences between skin cancer and moles
Skin cancer moles
- Asymmetrical and often jagged in shape. A mole with two distinct halves needs to be checked.
- Unclear or inconsistent borders or blurring edges.
- Multiple shades or colours.
- Changes over time.
- Larger than 1cm in diameter.
Non-cancerous moles (common moles)
- Round or oval in shape. Each half should be symmetrical.
- Smooth to the touch.
- Clear, defined borders.
- Has one, even colour which can be brown, pink, black or red.
- Are not painful, itchy, bleeding or scabby in appearance.
- Can appear on any part of the body.
Skin cancer vs Mole: How to spot the difference
Skin cancer is one of the most treatable diseases if caught early enough. Below are some simple tips to assist you in reviewing your moles and monitoring their changes. Whilst these tips will help clarify the common differences between moles and melanomas, it is important that you make sure any suspicious moles are checked by your skin cancer doctor.
What is a mole?
A mole is a perfectly normal skin growth that can occur almost anywhere on your body. Men, women and children can have upwards of 50 moles on their body and be perfectly fine. Moles are usually small, but range in size, shape and colour.
Moles aren’t usually there at birth and tend to develop during childhood through to young adulthood and, in the majority of cases, are harmless.
However, it is possible for moles to develop cancer cells, making it important for all Australians to be aware of unusual features to look out for.
What are the major types of skin cancer?
There are three major types of skin cancers:
While high UV exposure from the sun and tanning beds will increase your risk factors, all people are vulnerable to skin cancer and should practice good sun care and have routine skin checks.
Melanoma accounts for 2% of skin cancer diagnoses and whilst its incidence is relatively small, melanoma may be fatal if it is not treated early. It is therefore important to have a good understanding of the characteristics of a malignant melanoma, especially as it starts as a precancerous lesion and becomes cancerous over time. In most cases, patients who catch melanoma early have a high recovery rate.
Risk factors for skin cancer
Everyone can get skin cancer, but certain genetic traits and lifestyle choice can increase your risk factor. These include:
- Having light skin, hair and freckles.
- Frequent sunburns.
- If you work or perform a lot of activities in sunlight.
- Using tanning booths or beds.
- Having a family history of skin cancer.
- A compromised immune system.
- You've had skin cancer before.
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to practice good sun protection techniques such using sunscreen, wearing sensible clothing, staying in the shade during high UV exposure.
Check your moles using the ABCDE method
The most simple and easy-to-remember method for distinguishing between a mole and melanoma is by using the ABCDEs. These letters stand for Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Colour variation, Diameter and Evolving. These are designed to guide people during their self-exams of their skin, with each letter standing for common signs of melanoma.
- A for Asymmetry. Normal moles are usually symmetrical, whereas melanomas are typically asymmetrical. Moles that aren’t round should be checked.
- B for Borders. Borders of normal moles are most commonly smooth and precise. Melanomas, on the other hand, generally have blurred borders, or may have a white ring encompassing them.
- C for Colour. Benign (non-cancerous) moles are most likely to be all one colour (usually one shade of brown), while malignant moles can appear in a multitude of shades, including brown, black, tan and even red, white or blue.
- D for Diameter. The diameter of a normal mole will usually be within six millimetres (the size of a pencil eraser); any nevus with a diameter greater than six millimetres is more likely to be a melanoma.
- E for Evolution. Moles that are changing, especially rapidly, are a cause for concern and need attention.
Melanoma most often occurs in areas exposed to high UV radiation and sun exposure like the neck, legs, arms, back and face.
However, they can occur anywhere, including under your hair on the scalp, the soles of your feet, under nails, between toes and any other part of your body.
Tips for skin exams
Along with using the ABCDE method outlined above, here are a few tips to help you perform an effective and thorough self-exam:
- Remember to examine your entire body, including unusual place like your hands, palms, between your toes and even under your nails.
- Use a bright light and mirror to help you see difficult places, like your back.
- If there's someone you're comfortable with, like a friend, family member or partner, have them help you examine your skin in difficult to reach places.
If your mole starts to change
If a mole evolves or changes in any way, shape or kind – it should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible.
Skin cancer moles may change in
If your mole starts to itch, bleed or crust
Normal moles are harmless and don't have any symptoms or side effects, and don't cause any pain. If you notice any bleeding, crusting or itching, you need to seek clinical advice.
Bleeding moles are always a concern to doctors as it can be a sign of a bigger problem. While it is possible to cause bleeding in a mole by bumping or cutting it, if you don't know for sure the reason for the bleeding, you need to seek medical attention.
Itching is a more common sign in basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous Cell Cancer (SCC) and this symptom usually disappears in the area once the skin cancer is removed through surgery. In melanomas, itching isn't one of the more common symptoms. However, if a mole does itch, you should definitely have it looked at.
If a new mole appears
Any mole that appears during adulthood is more concerning than those that appear on a child or teenager. If you're thirty years or older and notice a new mole in any location, you should have any new mole or mark looked at.
In most cases, it won't be a concern, but a health professional only needs to catch a skin cancer once for it to be worth every visit.
Is it just a mole or skin cancer? Next steps
So, you've found a mole, freckle or mark you're not sure about. Here's the next steps you should take.
Consult a professional
If you notice anything unusual or change in one of your moles, you should book a professional mole check. Any beauty mark, skin lesion or growth you're concerned about can also be examined by your specialist.
No matter your skin type, family history or amount of sun exposure, skin checks are an important procedure to keep you safe and provide peace of mind. Early detection of an abnormal mole will increase your treatment success rate significantly. Skin checks take about 15 minutes, during which you doctor will look at all the moles, freckles, growths and lesions on your body to ensure they're benign.
If a mole looks abnormal, your doctor may take a biopsy for further testing. Treatment and therapy will be decided based on these results.
The treatment for skin cancer will vary depending on what stage it is caught. When caught early enough, a biopsy may be all you need to remove the cancer.
In later stages, when a tumour has developed or the melanoma has reached the tissue, organs or lymph nodes, more drastic treatments will be needed at a hospital. Melanoma treatments include:
- Targeted surgery
- Radiation therapy
The later a melanoma is discovered, the more difficult it is to treat. The survival rate is also lower the later it is found. While research and clinical trials are being conducted to find more effective cures, prevention and early detection are still the best solutions for skin cancer. It's important to have regular skin checks and have any abnormal moles looked at ASAP.
Don't perform mole removal yourself!
If even you're removing a benign mole for cosmetic reasons, you should leave these procedures to a professional. Performing an excision yourself can result in infection to the skin surface and tissue, while ointments often cause irritations and skin problems.
There's also the risk that you're wrong about the mole and it's actually melanoma that can affect other areas of your body.
Book your next skin check
The team at SunDoctors are experts in skin cancer diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Get your skin checked today.