We know, we know: Moles are not the sexiest of beauty topics. Personally, there's nothing we love more than a chick rocking her spots with pride. But, as beautiful as those marks are, they can also be the canary in the coal mine for skin cancer, a sort of skin S.O.S., if you will. "Unlike cancers that are internal and can evade detection, melanoma is on your skin and making itself known to you," says Dr. Julie Karen, an NYC-dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
So, how do you tell a run-of-the-mill mole from a potentially fatal one? Head back to grammar school and study up on your skin cancer ABCDEs, says Dr. Karen. A is for asymmetry, meaning a mole that has mismatched sides. B is for borders, which is anything with a jagged or scalloped edge. C stands for color — not light or dark, but multiple colors represented in one mole. D, which stand for diameter is a little trickier, as Dr. Karen says not all melanomas are large — some can be very small. In general though, anything that's larger than a pencil eraser should be monitored closely. Finally, E stands for evolution, a.k.a. any sort of changes in your mole.
While ideally you should be heading to the dermatologist once a year to get regular skin checks (or every six months, if there's a history of skin cancer in your family or you have several moles), it's also important to do a skin self-check once a month to track any changes in your moles. "Self skin examination is so important because any skin cancer that is going to be caught early is going to be so much better," says Dr. Karen. "Melanoma is thriving faster than any other cancer, up 800% in young women and 400% in young men." The good news is that if you catch a melanoma in its early stages, says Dr. Karen, you have a 98% survival rate — wait too long and those odds could go down to 65%, or even as low as 15%.
You may be asking yourself, what exactly does a skin check at home entail? Glad you asked! You should identify your moles and examine them for what Dr. Karen calls "ugly duckling syndrome" — i.e., any moles that stand out from the rest. She advises patients to grab a handheld mirror and, after they shower, step out of the tub and use the mirror to examine their moles. You want to look for new moles, but also track any of the aforementioned ABCDE changes in your existing ones.
Now, if you only have a light dusting of moles on your body, it's going to be a snap to check them. But, what about those people who are covered in moles and freckles? "It can be overwhelming at first," says Dr. Karen, "and you may think 'how can I possibly keep track of all of these moles?' But, if you check yourself every month, you are going to get used to your moles. After three or four months, they will start to be familiar to you, and you will get better at tracking changes."
The most important thing, says Dr. Karen, is that if you do notice any changes in your moles, you need to get to a doctor pronto to get it checked out. Your doctor will take a look at the mole and, if it is indeed suspicious, perform a common, minimally invasive procedure called a shave biopsy. The doctor will give you a single injection to numb the area, then remove the lesion and a small area of skin around it. This is sent off to a lab for analysis, and results come back in one week. If it's benign, then you're golden and nothing else needs to be done. If the results come back atypical, or as a melanoma, then you will have to have more skin around the area removed so it doesn't have a chance to spread.
To find a physician near you, you can head to the Skin Cancer Foundation's website and use their Physician Finder tool to locate a doc who specializes in skin cancer and mole checks. And, for those without access to a dermatologist, the Skin Cancer Foundation just kicked off their sixth annual Road To Healthy Skin Tour — an RV that travels across the country, working with local dermatologists that volunteer their time to offer free skin cancer screenings to the general public. Check out the site to see when it will be in your hood. After talking with Dr. Karen and reading up on these scary stats, we definitely will be keeping a closer eye on our beauty spots.
Do you give yourself regular skin checks?
Photo: MCV Photo
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