The incidence of skin cancer in the UK is rising faster than any other cancer. Our desire for exposure to the sun and the relatively easy access to foreign travel means that over 9000 people a year in the UK now develop malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Most of these cancers will develop in moles that we already have, so how do you know when to get help: what’s in a mole?
A mole (or naevus) is the term applied to any spot on the skin. Many moles are coloured (pigmented) but some have no colour. The medical term for a mole is a melanoma. This simply means any pigmented or non pigmented lesion; it does not mean a cancer. Although most moles are brown, they can vary from flesh coloured through yellow and blue, to black. Moles can be many different shapes and can be single or multiple, on almost any part of the body. Everybody has moles; some people have more than others. Most moles have formed before the age of 20, but some people can get new moles well into their 30s or beyond. The vast majority of moles remain benign (non cancerous) and never cause any trouble.
However, a small number may change with time and have the potential to become a cancerous mole (malignant melanoma). If a mole changes in size or colour, if it itches, is painful or bleeds, or if new nodules develop around it or it looks red and inflamed then the mole should be removed for examination. It is important that moles are removed properly so they can be thoroughly examined. It is usually recommended that moles are removed with an ellipse of normal skin around them, aiming for a 2mm margin of clearance. Most of the moles that are removed turn out to be fine. Pathologists (doctors who examine tissues under the microscope) use different terms for benign moles. They may be junctional, juvenile, blue, compound, dermal or intradermal. All these are descriptions for benign (non cancerous) moles. Some will be what are called dysplastic moles. These are thought to be precancerous moles that have the potential to become malignant melanomas if they are left. Although many of them may not turn cancerous it is impossible to tell which will and which won’t, so they should probably be removed. Waiting until they turn cancerous is obviously too late.
Dr Laurence Lever & Dr Julia Scarisbrick from The London Skin Clinic at 108 Harley Street are available for further comments and advice on how to protect yourself and your children during the summer season.