Keeping an eye on your moles – detecting melanoma early on

Written by: Dr Ben Esdaile
Published:
Edited by: Bronwen Griffiths

In the UK, there are around 15,000 new cases of melanoma every year, making it the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Dr Ben Esdaile is a leading dermatologist and an expert in the early diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. Find out from an expert how you can both prevent melanoma, as well as detect it in its early stages.

What to do if you notice a new mole on your skin

Being aware of your moles is very important, and if you do notice a new mole that perhaps looks different from your other moles, or you notice changes in an existing mole, then you should have them checked by a doctor. If you go to see your GP, they will refer to you to a dermatologist if they share your concerns.

What changes in moles are important to check for?

The following changes in an existing mole or a new mole to keep an eye out for include:

  • Increases in size
  • A change in the shape
  • Changes in colour
  • Any bleeding or crusting
  • Itchiness or soreness

Melanomas can appear anywhere on the body (even underneath the nails), but in women they most commonly appear on the legs, and in men they are most commonly found on the back.

What is melanoma and are there any risk factors?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects special types of cells called melanocytes. The melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin which is what gives skin its natural colour, but it is also responsible for providing some protection to your skin from sunlight.

Melanoma is associated with genetic and lifestyle factors, including:

  • Family history
  • Amount of sun or UV ray exposure
  • How easily your skin burns
  • How many moles you have

What are dermoscopy and mole mapping?

  • Dermoscopy is a diagnostic method to detect melanoma and other types of skin cancer. During dermoscopy, a handheld device (called a dermatoscope) is placed in contact with the skin. This is completely safe and painless and is used to assess the structures of the skin that cannot be seen with the naked eye. A dermatoscope is able to check for specific structures associated with early-stages of melanoma and other types of skin cancer.
  • Mole mapping makes use of a combination of both dermoscopy and high-resolution digital photography to take photographs of your moles over time. These photographs, with the help of computers, can detect any changes in the moles, allowing for early detection and recognition of skin cancers.

How frequently should you have a mole check or mole map?

In an ideal world you would have an annual skin check, particularly if you have known risk factors for skin cancer. If this does not happen, fortunately, many skin cancers form on places where you will notice them which means we are able to catch them early. Regardless of whether you have an annual skin check or not, the most important thing is that you are self-examining your skin to check for any changes.

How do you know if a mole is cancerous?

Whilst checking for changes in your skin is important in detecting skin cancer, some malignancies can only be detected with dermoscopy or with mole mapping, which are now considered the gold standard for detecting skin cancer in its early stages.

How can you prevent cancerous moles?

Sun protection is the most important way to protect your skin and to prevent melanoma. The following preventative measures should be taken:

  • Don’t allow yourself to burn
  • Avoid sunbeds
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen when exposed to sunlight, topping up regularly and after swimming.
  • Wear clothing when in the sun

Additionally, in an ideal world, you would also have an annual mole check with a dermoscopy to detect and diagnose early-stage skin cancer.

 

If you are concerned about your skin, make an appointment with an expert to have a thorough examination.

By Dr Ben Esdaile
Dermatology

Dr Ben Esdaile is a prominent London dermatologist specialising in both adult and paediatric dermatology. He has a particular interest in the early diagnosis and surgery of skin cancer and lectures both nationally and internationally on dermoscopy (a tool used to detect skin cancer). He also has a special interest in psoriasis, eczema, acne and rosacea.

Dr Esdaile undertook his medical training at Imperial College London and qualified with distinction in Medicine and Surgery. He pursued and completed his specialist training in dermatology in Oxford. He has a full-time NHS Consultant post at the Whittington Hospital in North London and is involved in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

He has published in multiple peer-review journals and has won an NHS clinical excellence award. He also works privately at the Highgate Hospital and Chase Lodge Hospital.

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