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What you should know about moles and melanoma

Jane Wilkens Michael is the host of the The Jane Wilkens Michael Show: Better Than Before, a weekly beauty, health and fitness talk show on CBS Radio. Her features have appeared in Town & Country, the New York Times, AARP The Magazine, t...

Lifesaving ABCDs

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. In 2007 alone, over 58,000 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, with 8,000 people actually dying from them. Furthermore, malignant melanoma is the number one cause of death from cancer in women in their 20s to 30s.
Woman with moles and freckles on face

So, fresh out of summer, here's what you need to know about your moles.

Q&A

I also asked the doctor how to detect any changes in a mole. He said to look for the following possible signs:

You may notice that new spots or existing skin moles may start to grow fast.

Melanomas come in a wide variety of colors. An early sign of skin cancer is the color distribution — color spreads from the borders of the mole into the surrounding skin area.

Moles that are usually flat begin to grow vertically.

Inflammation may occur on the surrounding skin area of a new, pigmented skin formation.

Melanoma formation is characterized by the change in the surface of a mole, including an erosion, oozing, scaliness and even bleeding.

The most common sign of skin cancer is an itching sensation in the affected areas. Skin cancers are usually painless, but some people with melanomas may experience a little pain and tenderness.

As a beauty editor and health columnist, everyone is always asking me for advice about their skin. Some questions are very basic and year-round. For example, how can I cover up a pimple before a big event? Others are much more complex. Come summertime and thereafter, the most common concern is: "How do I know if my mole is really melanoma?"

The first one is easy. With a nod to such luminous celebs as Cindy Crawford, Mariah Carey, Kate Upton, Blake Lively and Taylor Swift, I recommend simply taking a brown pencil and turning the offending blemish into a beauty mark. The second uncertainty is a lot more involved. For that, I turn to an expert like Dr. Steve Rotter, a Vienna, Virginia, board certified dermatologist, whose eponymous Skin Cancer Outpatient Surgical Hospital became the first Virginia state licensed hospital dedicated to the treatment of skin cancer.

To that end, Dr. Rotter says three key actions can help make sun exposure safer: Prevent, detect and treat skin cancer as early as possible. “Education is key,” he contends, “as well as acceptance — many patients avoid having their skin screened or treated due to fear or embarrassment.” He notes that getting over any personal issues associated with sun exposure will help keep your skin healthy for your entire life.

Most people have some skin marks, such as freckles, moles or birthmarks. However, some of these may be the signs of skin cancer. That said, here is Dr. Rotter's cheat sheet to moles and melanoma.

The ABCDs of moles and melanoma

(A)symmetry: Melanomas are usually characterized by an irregular and asymmetrical shape. This means that one half of the spot does not match the other half.

(B)order: The edges of the old mole may turn scalloped or rough. New skin spots with undefined borders may also appear.

(C)olor: Existing or new, fast-growing moles with uneven coloring (various shades of brown or black, colorless areas) are the first signs of skin cancer. These spots may later become red, blue or white.

(D)iameter: Early melanoma spots usually are greater than six millimeters in diameter.

The bottom line

Use at least SPF 30 sunscreen regardless of your skin type or color and apply it to exposed areas 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. As far as moles — when in doubt, check them out!

“Have a thorough skin exam every year to detect and prevent the three major types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, aqueous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma,” Dr. Rotter concludes.

More skin care advice

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