It’s a safe bet to say that most of us have moles. Caused by clusters of pigment cells called “melanocytes, ” these spots of color on the body are normally nothing to be worried about. A common mole has a fairly stereotypical presentation and is easy to identify. Atypical moles, however, can vary greatly in appearance and increase a person’s risk of later developing skin cancer. While an atypical mole does not always become cancerous, they do elevate the chances of getting melanoma. Keep reading to learn more about these different types of moles and to view pictures to help guide you in recognizing them.
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Cancerous Moles: What Does It Look Like?
Having moles (also known as “nevi”) is extremely common; at any given time in their life, a person may have anywhere between 10-50 moles on their bodies. While the majority of the time these moles are benign and nothing to worry about, sometimes the moles may be atypical and – more dangerously – cancerous.
Knowing how to quickly assess a mole on your body and quickly distinguish a healthy mole from a cancerous mole can be a life-saving skill.
These are the three main types of moles that you may see on your skin:
Common (Typical) Moles
Common moles are usually harmless and can be either congenital or form in areas exposed to the sun. Read more about common moles here.
- Uniform in color.
- Generally tan, pink, or brown.
- Less than ¼ inch across.
- Smooth, round, well-defined borders.
- Do not change in appearance.
Atypical (Dysplastic) Moles
- Can be multiple colors.
- May be blue, black, pink, or brown.
- Larger than ¼ inch across.
- Jagged, irregular borders.
- May be uneven in texture.
These can vary greatly in appearance and you can distinguish them by knowing your ABCDEs.
- Asymmetry: Are both sides of the mole a mirror image of each other?
- Borders: Does the mole have blurred, “fuzzy” edges?
- Color: Are there multiple colors present in the mole?
- Diameter: Is the mole larger than 6mm across?
- Evolution: Has the mole changed in appearance in any way?
If your mole has any of these unwanted characteristics, then there is a high likelihood that it is cancerous. You can learn more about symptoms of cancerous moles here. It’s extremely important to seek immediately medical intervention if you notice these changes, as melanoma is very aggressive and can become deadly in a very short amount of time.
Five Pictures of Moles that Are Cancerous
You can use these images as a reference for identifying cancerous moles. Please remember that no two cancerous moles are exactly alike, so use prudence when trying to recognize one. When in doubt, consult your dermatologist.
Types of Skin Cancer Moles
There are four primary types of skin cancer moles. These types of melanoma vary in how they show up on the skin and how they progress, and depending on the type of melanoma, it may remain “in situ” (meaning that it remains in only one place and doesn’t spread) or it’s invasive, which means that it is more likely to spread and metastasize.
- Superficial Spreading Melanoma (SSM): This is the most common type of melanoma, accounting for 70% of cases of it. It typically targets younger people. As its name indicates, it tends to spread across the upper layer of your skin before spreading and going deeper.
- Lentigo Melanoma: Also known as “lentigo melanoma on sun-damaged skin, ” this type of melanoma typically occurs in older people and in areas where there was sun exposure. It tends to remain in situ and is comprised of cancerous cells but does not spread.
- Acral Lentiginous Melanoma: This type of cancerous mole is the one that is found in darker-skinned people, but fair skin people can also get it. It starts out superficial and in situ, but it does deepen and spread if allowed to progress. It is found under the feet, on the palms of hands, and under fingernails.
- Nodular Melanoma: Nodular melanoma is the most aggressive type of melanoma, accounting for 10-15% of cases. It shows up as a dark lump and quickly spreads downward into the skin (“vertical growth”). It shows up independently, not where a mole was. It’s very dangerous and requires quick diagnosis due to how quickly it spreads.
As you can see, the type of melanoma you have plays a huge role in how dangerous the cancer is. While lentigo melanoma tends to have a better prognosis, nodular melanoma can be deadly in a very short amount of time. Seek immediate treatment if you see any of these types of cancerous moles on your body.
Not all types of skin cancer show up on existing moles. Regular skin checks are important to help ensure that you catch skin cancer in its earliest stages. Stay mindful to any changes to your skin and consult your physician or dermatologist if you observe any new growths or lesions on your skin. Skin cancer can be highly deadly and spread fast, which makes early detection key to improving your chances of survival.
In addition to melanoma, there are two other types of skin cancer that you need to be aware of.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
- Can occur in either dark or light skinned people.
- Are caused by sun exposure and tanning.
- Can spread into nearby tissue such as the bones and nerves.
- Can happen anywhere on the body.
- May resemble a pink patch of skin or a skin-colored (or pearly) bump.
- Most common type of skin cancer.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
- More common in light-skinned people.
- Occurs in places exposed to sunlight.
- Can spread deep into the skin.
- Most often appears on face, neck, ears, and nose.
- Looks like a red bump, scaly patch, or oozing sore.
- Second most common type of skin cancer.
While basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma aren’t as aggressive as melanoma, it’s still important to catch them early to prevent lasting damage and disfigurement from them.
Can Mole Removal Cause Cancer?
Some people may be concerned that removing a mole can cause irritation to the site, leading to cancerous tumor formation. That is the opposite of the truth, and as a matter of fact, removing a suspicious mole can actually be beneficial and help prevent the development of cancer.
Occasionally, however, removing a mole can lead to the tissue being left behind. If that area was already at a higher risk of becoming cancerous and the entirety of the mole was not removed, then yes, cancer can form at the site of a removed mole. However, the removal of the mole is not the cause of cancer.
On the other hand, sometimes a mole may fall off on its own. While that is not always a sign of cancer, it is worth investigating to rule out cancer as a cause. For more signs of cancerous moles, click here.
Reasons that your mole may disappear off include:
- Trauma. Injury to the site can cause a mole to become injured and accidentally shaved or twisted off.
- Hormones. Hormonal changes, such as pregnancy, can cause the melanin in your mole to either darken or lighten.
- Evolution. Occasionally, change to a mole is normal and safe. It may shrink or fade over time. To be safe, report changes to your doctor. Click here to learn more about changes to moles and what it means.
- Variety. Some conditions, such as seborrheic keratoses, warts, or skin tags, resemble moles. They may scrape or fall off naturally.
- Cancer. If there is an immune response, your body may attack the mole. Metastatic cancer also can cause a mole to disappear and reappear somewhere else on your body.
Always report suspicious changes of your moles to your healthcare provider. Even if you “feel” certain that you don’t have cancer, you simply do not want to risk the loss of life over something that can be treatable if caught early.
What Percentage of Biopsied Moles are Cancerous?
It’s normal to be a little bit nervous when your doctor tells you that he wants to take a biopsy of one of your moles. Waiting for the results can be nerve-wracking, but it should give you comfort to know that the odds of your biopsy coming back as cancerous is very low. Statistically, one in twenty biopsied moles come back as cancerous. That’s as low as just 5%.
It’s important to understand, however, that doctors only biopsy moles that they’re concerned about. If doctors biopsied all moles, the chances of one of them coming back as cancerous would be so small that it would be infinitesimal.
There are 3 main types of biopsies that your dermatologist may recommend:
- Shave Biopsy: This is when the doctor scrapes off a bit of tissue (part of the epidermis and a little bit of the dermis) and sends it to the lab for testing. This is not recommended for melanoma.
- Punch Biopsy: This is like taking a cookie-cutter sample of the tissue for investigation. It goes deeper than a shave biopsy, penetrating the subcutaneous tissue. This is the preferred biopsy for melanoma suspects.
- Incisional/Excisional Biopsy: This type of biopsy surgically removes either part or the whole mole with a scalpel to send to the lab. It is a good diagnostic tool for melanoma.
Results from a biopsy typically come back fairly quickly, within just a few days. When your biopsy comes back from the lab, your doctor will notify you to go over the results. If further testing is required, they will advise you of it during the call.
My Mole is Cancerous: Now What?
If you just got the bad news that your mole is cancerous, first: sit down. Breathe. Inhale and exhale deeply and try to stay calm. The prognosis for cancerous moles, when caught early, is an incredible 99% five-year survival rate.
That means that most people who catch their melanoma early do not suffer lasting effects from it. The longer you delay treatment, though, the poorer the outcome. That’s why early detection is absolutely vital for survival for skin cancer.
Treatment for cancerous moles depends on how early it has been caught, but it includes:
- Surgical removal, which involves cutting the cancerous mole off completely under general anesthesia. Click here to know more.
- Imiquimod, which is a cream that is used to remove the cancerous mass.
- Immunotherapy, which uses your body’s own immune system to destroy cancer.
- Chemotherapy, which is either taken orally or injected to attack the cancerous cells.
- Radiation, which uses high-powered x-rays to target the melanoma. Read more here.
Nobody wants the bad news that they have cancer. Taking precautions such as using sunblock, avoiding tanning booths, staying out of the sun, and getting regular skin and mole checks can help prevent skin cancer from forming.
If you have dysplastic mole syndrome, fair skin, congenital melanocytotic nevi, or a family history of skin cancer, your risk is greatly increased. Taking due vigilance in preventing melanoma can save your life; don’t gamble with your life. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist today.
You can find further details of Types of moles here.