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Feature Article Is Your Mole a Cause for Concern?

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Six Types of Skin Growths That Should Send You to Your Doctor

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. Skin cancer can typically be successfully treated if caught early, but it is also generally a preventable form of cancer. Some people are at higher risk than others, but for the most part reducing your exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or indoor tanning beds is extremely important.

“We’re seeing this trend in the medical community where what used to be a cancer found mostly in those over age 50 is showing up at a younger and younger age,” said Lauren Boudreaux, DO, dermatology resident with Samaritan. “Indoor tanning is a big part of the problem, and unsafe sun behaviors in general.”

Unsafe sun behaviors can include frequent sunburns or being outside regularly without sunscreen, even if you don’t burn.

“This part of Oregon has a limited number of sunny days every year, so people may not take sunscreen and shade as seriously here,” said Dr. Boudreaux. “But we actually have a surprisingly high amount of skin cancer.”

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that Oregon has the fourth highest rate of melanoma in the country despite its relatively low rate of UV exposure.

As skin cancer develops, it often appears as an irregular mole. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are six main types of skin cancer and precancerous lesions that can develop after prolonged UV exposure.

  • Melanoma. The most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma looks like a mole when it develops, and can even start within an existing mole. If left untreated, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body. Know the ABCDEs of melanoma:
    • Asymmetry – A mole that is uneven where one half does not match the other is a warning sign for melanoma.
    • Border – Melanoma will often have an uneven or ragged border.
    • Color – Most moles are a uniform color. Melanoma may appear with several colors or shades.
    • Diameter – The size of a melanoma is usually larger than a mole. Anything bigger than a pencil eraser could be concerning.
    • Evolving – Most moles stay the same. Moles that change over time size, color, shape, becoming itchy or oozy should be seen by a doctor.
  • Basal cell carcinoma. The most frequently occurring type of skin cancer, a basal cell carcinoma can be hard to tell from other skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. They develop most commonly in areas with frequent UV exposure. Causes for concern are an open sore that won’t heal, a red or irritated patch, a shiny bump, a pink growth or an unexplained scar-like patch.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. The second most common skin cancer, a squamous cell carcinoma may appear scaly, red or wart-like. It may crust and bleed. A squamous cell carcinoma may occur anywhere on the body but it is most common in an area with frequent UV exposure.
  • Actinic keratosis. A precancerous lesion, actinic keratosis is a crusty, scaly growth that feels rough to the touch. It usually develops on areas with frequent UV exposure such as the face and back of the hands. It can turn into skin cancer if not treated.
  • Atypical moles. These are not cancerous and often occur naturally, but people who have atypical moles have a higher risk of developing melanoma. Melanoma can develop within an existing mole or elsewhere on the body. Keep an eye on moles according to the ABCDE rules and see your doctor immediately if a mole becomes itchy, painful, raised, bleeds or turns bluish-black.
  • Merkel cell carcinoma. A very rare and aggressive form of skin cancer, it occurs mainly in those over age 50 and who have suppressed immune systems, such as organ transplant or HIV patients. A Merkel cell carcinoma usually looks like a firm bump about the size of a dime that develops in an area with frequent UV exposure. It is not typically painful.

Dr. Boudreaux recommends an annual full body exam by your physician to check for abnormal skin growths. Although any place on the body can develop skin cancer, areas that receive daily exposure such as the face, ears, neck and hands should get special attention. Any lesion or mole on the body that is painful, crusty or bleeding should be seen by a doctor, even if it periodically heals up before coming back.

To reduce the risk of skin cancer for you and your family, Dr. Boudreaux recommends these tips from the Skin Cancer Foundation.

  • Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Do not burn.
  • Avoid tanning and never use indoor tanning beds.
  • Cover up with clothing, hats and sunglasses.
  • Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and reapply every two hours. Dr. Boudreaux recommends a daily sunscreen for the face and hands year-round. UV exposure is cumulative throughout your lifetime and isn’t limited to summer time or even sunny days.
  • Keep newborns out of the sun and use sunscreen on children 6 months or older.

Learn more about choosing the right sunscreen in our health library. 

*Photos provided by the Skin Cancer Foundation.