Health & Medicine

Could your mole be melanoma? Here’s how to know what to look for on your skin.

Keli Turner
Keli Turner

In 2018, there will be approximately 1,500 new cases of melanoma in Kentucky. This represents 5 percent of all new cancer cases expected. Although 5 percent is not a large number, melanoma is a cancer that can be easily detected and cured if diagnosed at an early stage.

Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops from cells — melanocytes — that produce the pigment melanin. Melanin is responsible for protecting cells against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. Melanocytes are most prevalent in the skin, but they are also present in other areas of the body. The most common site for melanoma to develop is the skin. Risk factors for melanoma of the skin include sun exposure, tanning bed usage and a history of other skin cancers.

Melanoma is usually detected as a mole with abnormal features. The mnemonic "ABCDE" is used to identify moles that are worrisome for melanoma. These features include:

▪  A for asymmetry. One-half of the mole does not match the other half.

▪  B for borders. Edges are uneven; may appear to be scalloped or etched

▪  C for color, such as black or blue

▪  D for diameter. You might be concerned if the mole is larger than a pencil eraser.

▪  E for evolving. Is it growing, bleeding, or itching?

If a mole has at least one of these characteristics, a physician should evaluate it. A piece of the mole must be sampled to diagnose melanoma. This procedure is called a biopsy.

The depth of invasion into the skin is one of the most important features of the biopsy. It is also important that a doctor ask about symptoms and perform a physical examination to determine if the melanoma has spread to other areas of the body such as the lymph nodes or to other organs. These evaluations are important to determine how the melanoma will be treated.

If a mole is melanoma, it should be completely excised. In addition, a lymph node biopsy may also be performed. During this procedure, lymph nodes are removed and inspected for melanoma.

For patients with melanoma in the lymph nodes or with melanoma in other organs, immune therapy is an important component of treatment. These drugs alter the immune system to fight melanoma and are very effective.

Because melanoma is an easily detected and curable cancer, it is important to examine your skin regularly and speak with a doctor about any moles or skin lesions that you find concerning.

Dr. Keli Turner, a surgical oncologist with Lexington Surgeons, practices at Baptist Health Lexington.