Should You be Worried about Skin Cancer if You Have a Dysplastic Mole?
Dysplastic, or atypical, moles can indicate an increased risk of developing melanoma; however, most moles, whether normal or atypical, do not become cancerous. If you do have dysplastic moles, you should use this as a wakeup call that you need to pay attention to your skin and take precautions when out in the sun.
What is a dysplastic mole?
Moles are a growth in the skin caused by melanocytes, or pigment cells, growing in clusters. According to the National Cancer Institute, most adults have between 10 and 40 common moles. New moles can continue to develop until about the age of 40. Dysplastic moles are different in a number of ways:
A common mole is usually smaller than 5 mm, or about one-quarter inch. Dysplastic moles are usually wider than 5 mm.
Common moles have distinct edges and are round or oval. Atypical moles have an irregular edge that can fade into the surrounding skin.
Common moles have a uniform color of pink, tan or brown. People of color usually have darker moles than those with fair skin. Dysplastic moles can have a mixture of colors, ranging from pink to dark brown.
Common moles usually have a smooth surface. They might be slightly raised in a dome shape. Atypical moles can be flat and may have a smooth, scaly or pebbly surface.
Does a dysplastic mole mean you will develop melanoma?
Having a dysplastic mole doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to develop melanoma. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, "most moles — both ordinary and atypical ones — never become cancerous." However, atypical moles are more likely to develop into melanoma than common moles, and some people with dysplastic moles are more likely to develop melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, some of the factors that indicate a high risk of skin cancer include:
- Having dysplastic moles plus at least two family members with a history of melanoma (those without a family history still have a higher risk than the general population but not as high as those with both atypical moles and family history)
- Having more than 10 atypical moles
- Having atypical mole syndrome, which is 100 or more moles, with one larger than one-third inch and at least one that is atypical
Having a higher risk of melanoma still doesn’t guarantee you will develop skin cancer. But it does indicate that you should take precautions:
- Complete monthly self skin checks. Take pictures of any moles so you can notice any changes as quickly as possible.
- Pay attention to changes in your moles, particularly the size, shape, color, or surface texture, or if it begins to itch or bleed.
- Have annual skin checks completed by your dermatologist. In some cases, your doctor might suggest semi-annual visits to monitor any potential problems.
- Practice sun protection every time you go outdoors, including daily use of a broad spectrum sunscreen, wearing wide-brimmed hats to protect your face and neck, staying out of the direct sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and wearing protective clothing when out in the sun.
- Avoid using tanning beds.
If you do notice any changes in your mole or if you notice new growths, you should talk with your dermatologist as soon as possible. Don’t wait to see if it goes away or gets better. Early detection in skin cancer is important for effective treatment.
If your doctor is concerned about skin cancer, he or she might suggest a biopsy, which allows a pathologist to look at tissue under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present. Your doctor might also suggest having a mole surgically removed depending on the results of the biopsy.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.