In this article, we’ll walk you through some simple steps for checking your moles with the ABCDE check of melanoma and how it can help you catch the warning signs early.
What is a mole?
Moles can be found anywhere on the skin, alone or in clusters. A mole or nevus is a dark, pigmented spot on our skin comprised of skin cells that have grown in a group rather than individually. These cells are called melanocytes and are responsible for producing melanin, the pigment (color) in our skin.
How do they form?
Moles can form from sun exposure, but we are also born with them, inheriting them genetically. Although the number of moles varies from person to person, the average adult has between 10 and 40 moles. Fair-skinned people generally have more moles due to the lower amounts of melanin in their skin. Moles can even come and go with hormonal changes such as pregnancy or puberty.
Most people develop more moles on their skin naturally with age and sun exposure, and — most of the time — these moles are harmless. However, we need to conduct skin checks regularly to see if our moles have changed.
Learn the ABCDE melanoma self-check
One of the most common methods for detecting melanomas is the ABCDE method. Developed by physicians to help patients remember the symptoms of melanoma easily, it details the warning signs in moles that usually indicate cancer. It’s important to perform monthly skin checks since most melanomas will start as a new mole or skin growth.
Check your moles for these signs during self-examinations:
If you were to draw a line through the middle of a mole, would the two sides match? Benign (harmless) moles are often symmetrical (matching).
Typically, non-cancerous moles have smooth, even borders. Melanomas sometimes have irregular borders that are difficult to define.
Most benign (harmless) moles are all one color, often a single shade of brown. Having a variety of colors or an uneven distribution of color is a warning signal.
Melanomas are often 6 millimeters or more in diameter (approximately the size of a pencil eraser).
Benign moles look the same over time. If a mole has gone through recent changes in color, size, shape elevation or is bleeding, itching or crusting- bring it to the attention of a health professional.
The places you probably aren’t checking
While many of us understand that moles can grow anywhere, we may not think to check for them everywhere. Melanomas can grow in unusual and hidden places that we need to be aware of. Below we list a few of the “hidden” places you may not have thought to check.
Also, use the ABCDE melanoma check method on these body parts:
Moles between your toes
Melanomas on the feet are often missed or caught too late because the feet are a frequently neglected part of our body that is out of sight, out of mind.
A study by the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery found an overall 5-year survival rate of 52% for patients with primary melanoma of the foot and ankle as compared to 84% for patients with primary melanoma somewhere else on the lower part of the body.
Foot melanomas are often a form of cutaneous melanoma but they could also be other forms of the cancer, like acral lentiginous melanoma and nodular melanoma.
Narrow dark streaks under the nails or on soles of the feet
Acral lentiginous melanoma will often form under the nails or toenails as a narrow, dark streak. It usually develops on the thumb or the big toe, but it can occur on any nail.
This is more common in people with dark skin but can occur in all skin types. It can also sometimes appear on the palms or soles of the feet as a dark spot or patch.
A dark spot on the iris or vision problems
Ocular melanoma is a very rare form of melanoma that presents itself as a dark spot on the iris, a change in the shape of the pupil, poor or blurry vision or as the appearance of flashing lights or floating specks.
Sores that won’t heal in hidden areas
Mucosal melanoma can appear as sores that won’t heal in your mouth or nasal passages, or in other areas of the body that produce mucus such as the vagina and anus. If you notice any sores in these areas that won’t heal and cannot be explained by other causes, see your doctor and have them checked out.
The basics of a self-exam
We’ve already established the importance of ABCDE checking your moles, even in unexpected places, but how should you do it?
The first step is to take inventory of your moles and understand your baseline. Once you know what’s normal for your skin and your body, it is easier to identify any potentially dangerous changes.
The Skin Cancer Foundation provides a helpful order of operations for performing head-to-toe skin checks, to ensure you don’t miss a thing:
- Start with your face, examining your nose, lips, mouth, and ears. Then move on to your scalp, pushing your hair aside and using a mirror to get a good look at the skin.
- Next, check your hands, making sure to look between the fingers and even under the nails. After that, take inventory of your arms from your wrists to your forearms to your elbows, raising up your arms to look at your armpits and surrounding areas. From there, examine your torso, chest, and neck. Women should look under their breasts as well.
- Find a full-length mirror and use a hand mirror to look at your back, neck shoulders and upper back and arms. Continue down to examine your lower back, butt and the backs of both legs.
- Finish by sitting down and using a hand mirror to examine your genitals. Also, be sure to check all parts of your legs and examine your feet — the tops, soles, heels, in-between your toes and under your toenails.
Check yourself, take control
Take control of your health and check yourself monthly. With the right tools and greater awareness, you have a better chance of catching cancer early, anywhere on your body.
Next month we will hear from someone who had melanoma and the things she hopes people take away from her experience.