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May 13, 2016

The ABCs of moles

Some people have dozens of them, while others have near-pristine skin with nary a freckle in sight. Our moles make us unique. What are they exactly and how are they associated with skin cancer?

What is a mole?

Moles – also known as nevi or beauty marks – are very common growths found on the skin. They are flat, symmetrical clusters of pigmented cells called melanocytes.  They have an even colour and measure less than six millimetres.

Most of the time, moles are harmless and generally appear on the skin before the age of 40.  It’s not unusual for someone to have a few dozen moles over his or her body.

What is malignant melanoma?

Malignant melanoma is a rare, but highly lethal type of skin cancer. It develops in the melanocytes, which explains its connection with moles. It can form where there are moles, freckles, birthmarks, but also elsewhere on the skin.

Most melanomas – approximately 80 percent – do not originate from existing moles. This means we need to pay close attention to new moles first and foremost, and then to any changes in existing moles.

What are the risk factors for malignant melanoma?

Here are the main risk factors for malignant melanoma:

  • Family history of melanoma
  • Fair, sun-sensitive skin
  • Light-coloured hair and blue or green eyes
  • Having many moles (more than 50)
  • Previous sunburns, sun exposure without protection, outdoor work or leisure activities

How to tell if a mole is abnormal

We should all be checking our skin, dark spots and beauty marks for changes in appearance. In addition, if you have risk factors for melanoma, you should examine your skin from head to toe on a regular basis and consult a dermatologist if you notice any unusual lesions.

Here are the ABCs of self-examination to help you detect more quickly and easily skin lesions that require a medical consultation.

Asymmetrical: When you trace a line down the middle of the mole, you do not get two equal halves.
Borders: The borders of the mole are not regular or clearly defined.
Colour: The colour is not uniform, with hues of light brown to dark brown.
Diameter: It is greater than six millimetres in diameter.
Evolution: Its size, colour or thickness have changed over time or there is itching or bleeding.

Of all the types of cancer, melanoma has the best rate of recovery when caught in time (90 percent). When it goes undetected, however, it is often fatal. Taking a few minutes every month to check your skin is well worth the effort.

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, but in men it most often appears on the back, and in women, on the legs.

Quick Tip!
In general, a person’s moles will all look the same. Consider melanoma a “black sheep.” It will stand out, making it easier to identify.

How to prevent malignant melanoma

Experts tell us that 90 percent of melanomas are associated with sunburns and frequent, prolonged exposure to UV rays – in other words, causes we can avoid. Now that’s something to think about, right? Here is a reminder of the sun safety rules you should follow to protect your skin from the sun:

  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Limit exposure to the sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Protect yourself: hat, long clothing with tight-woven fibres, parasol, canopy
  • Use a good quality sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every time you are in the sun. Reapply generously every two hours and after swimming or perspiring heavily.
  • Keep babies out of the sun.

Pharmacy services

If you need information or advice about sun protection, talk to your family pharmacists. They can help you choose the right product for you and your family.