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When to Worry About a Mole

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You’ve probably learned by now that some moles can be cancerous. What can be harder to figure out is what to watch for if you have moles and when to visit your doctor.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests using the “ABCD rule” to help distinguish a normal looking mole from one that could be skin cancer. The letters can help you remember what to check for:

A = asymmetry. This means that if you were to slice a problem mole down the middle, one half would not match the other. Normal moles are fairly symmetrical.

B = border irregularity. A normal mole has a fairly regular round or oval border. An abnormal mole may have notched, ragged or indistinct borders.

C = color that’s uneven. Normal moles are usually tan, brown or black with pretty consistent coloring. Moles to worry about are often not the same color all over, and may include patches of black, pink, white or even blue.

D = diameter larger than 6mm. Most normal moles are no more than 6mm or about a quarter inch across, about the size of a pencil eraser. Cancerous moles are often (but not always) larger.

In addition to recommending this easy detection scheme, the ACS also urges you to see a doctor if one of your moles undergoes a change, such as becoming larger, if you see new lesions or growths appear and if you have a sore that doesn’t heal.

It can be difficult to get yourself in the habit of checking for skin cancer. It’s easy to feel weary of being on the alert for breast cancer, colon cancer and all the other things that can go wrong--especially in these media-dominated times when we fear every fever may be swine flu and every case of diarrhea may be the dreaded e. coli. And it’s human nature to want to shield ourselves from potential bad news.

But there are many good reasons to train yourself to monitor your moles. First, skin cancer is very common. In fact the ACS reports that skin cancer accounts for about half of all cases of cancer in the U.S. On the other hand, the vast majority of skin cancers are one of two forms of carcinoma, much less deadly than melanoma, the third possibility.

Add a Comment2 Comments

Hi Diane:

I'm a Boomer too, and I lived almost all of my adolescent and young adult life in Southern California. Enough said about my skin?!

I have read that many doctors recommend that you make a "map" of your moles so you 1) remember where to look for them and 2) easily spot changes. This seems like a very good idea to me. This is something you could do yourself or with a partner, at least for starters. Most information I've come across says that most of our moles have emerged by the time we hit young adulthood, so there's no reason to wait too long to make a map.

I'm sure many doctors would recommend that Boomers like us and others who are concerned make an appointment for a professional check and risk assessment as well. I don't have hard information on this, but it seems like another good idea.

As for insurance--maybe you could ask your doctor to include an overall check as part of an annual physical? And if your insurance covers a physical, maybe get it covered that way? (Don't even get me started on the topic of insurance!)

Thanks for your comment, Diane.

October 16, 2009 - 9:13am


Thanks for an important post. I am among the Baby Boomers, who spent hours in the sun with no skin protection in our teens and 20s. So this is a concern of mine as well.

Here's what I've always wondered: In the same way that we get a first Pap smear, or a baseline mammogram in our mid-30s or at 40, or a first colonoscopy, is there a time at which adults should go to a dermatologist for just a "baseline" skin cancer check? Is there such a thing, and is it recommended?

Seems like with the high incidence of skin cancers, an exam like this might catch a lot of them earlier. But I don't know, even, if insurance covers this. It would be the equivalent of a "wellness" skin exam, I guess.

Any thoughts?

October 16, 2009 - 8:54am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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