Seeing Spots: Understanding the Skin Cancer Risks of Moles

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Dermatologist Richard Torbeck, MD with Advanced Dermatology PC, Provides Tips to Stay Safe from Melanoma.

Dr. Richard Torbeck

Monitoring our body’s moles is important to stay alert for melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

For some, they are “beauty marks.” But dermatologist Dr. Richard Torbeck, a skin cancer specialist with Advanced Dermatology PC, says moles demand our attention for health reasons, too: “Monitoring our body’s moles is important to stay alert for melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer.”

Skin cancer outpaces all other cancers combined, according to the nonprofit Skin Cancer Foundation. And melanomas are the most deadly forecast to cause more than 7,000 deaths this year in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. “If melanoma is not treated early,” explains Dr. Torbeck, “it can spread to other organs, becoming difficult to treat.” Dr. Torbeck also adds that there is an increase in thin melanomas which may be the result of importance placed on physician and self/partner skin exams on annual basis at a minimum.

Melanoma begins in the skin’s melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing pigment. Moles – medically called “nevi” – are clusters of melanocytes. “Moles are normal,” emphasizes Dr. Torbeck. “Almost all of us have them, and most do not become cancerous. But checking for changes is important so that we can act rapidly if a problem develops.”

Most of us have between ten and forty ‘common’ moles, which typically develop from childhood until age 40. Common moles share a range of traits: they’re round and small, no larger than a pencil eraser; they have an even color, usually pink, tan, or brown; and they’re smooth, with a distinct border. A smaller percentage of people also develop atypical – or dysplastic – moles, which are larger and may have an irregular color, surface, or border.

“Having moles is not a cause for alarm,” says Dr. Torbeck. “But we need to monitor our moles so that we can take action if needed.”

Increasing melanoma awareness remains important: The CDC reports that rates more than doubled between 1982 and 2011.

“Early intervention is key,” emphasizes Dr. Torbeck, noting that the five-year survival rate is 99 percent when cases are treated before they spread to the body’s lymph nodes. “If we add in the fact that about half of melanomas are self-detected, the case for self-checks becomes even more compelling.”

With that in mind, he offers the following advice: 5 Tips to Protect Ourselves from Melanoma.
1. Know your risk level: “Genes and environment contribute to risk,” explains Dr. Torbeck. “Factors include fair skin, childhood sunburns, the presence of atypical moles, more than 50 common moles, and any personal or family history of skin cancer. For those with elevated risk, it’s important to develop an appropriate check-up schedule with your dermatologist. That might be once a year or as frequently as every three months, if there is a combination of factors.”

2. Map your moles: “Early intervention starts with skin awareness,” notes Dr. Torbeck. “The American Academy of Dermatology website has a Body Mole Map that people can print out and use to map their body marks. This is a great first step to establish a baseline reference to check for changes. Photos are also helpful.”

3. Practice the alphabet check: “Do regular self-exams, and think ‘A, B, C, D, E’ to remember the five key factors when inspecting moles,” states Dr. Torbeck. “Asymmetry: an irregular shape. Border: an uneven edge. Color: uneven color. Diameter: changes in size. Evolving: changing over a period of weeks or months. If any of these occurs, we need to see a doctor immediately.”

4. See other changes? Take action!: “It’s not only moles we need to be aware of,” says Dr. Torbeck. “Research shows that seventy percent of melanomas can develop in other areas of our skin, so if we notice changes in skin color or texture or experience itching, oozing or bleeding, it’s vital to see a doctor.”

5. Protect the next generation: “Ninety-five percent of melanomas are linked to UV exposure,” emphasizes Dr. Torbeck. “Early skin exposure is especially damaging. Today’s adults may have grown up before this understanding. But we can make sure the next generation is protected by using sunscreen, covering up, and staying away from indoor tanning devices.”

“If caught early,” Dr. Torbeck concludes, “skin cancer, including melanoma, is treatable. And staying aware is the first step to recovery.”                    

Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey) is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies. http://www.advanceddermatologypc.com.

Richard Torbeck, MD, is a board-certified and fellowship-trained dermatologist specializing in Mohs micrographic surgery for skin cancer and cosmetic dermatology at Advanced Dermatology P.C.

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Melissa Chefec
MCPR, LLC
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