When it comes to moles, throw out the ABCs


If you have fair skin, you’ve probably been schooled in the ABCs ““ or, more accurately, the ABCDEs ““ of skin cancer.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the ABCDEs stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter and Evolving. The gist is that you’re supposed to look for abnormalities in any of these areas, which could be warning signs of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

In the past, doctors tried to prevent melanoma by cutting off any moles that fell under a category of the ABCDEs. However, Dr. Holly Gunn, medical director of the Dermatology, Aesthetic and Laser Center at St. Elizabeth Physicians in Florence, said that’s no longer the school of thought.

“Just taking off atypical-looking moles doesn’t mean you’re preventing a patient from developing skin cancer,” she said.

Melanoma develops from DNA mutations in a cell called a melanocyte. Some of those cells hang out together and create moles; however, most of our melanocytes actually are single cells in the skin creating pigment to help prevent damage to our skin from the sun. The more melanocytes you have, the higher risk you have of developing melanoma. “It’s kind of like playing the lottery,” Gunn said.

However, removing moles from the body isn’t like taking back your lottery ticket. Gunn said most melanomas actually originate from the single melanocytes in the skin, not from a mole.

So, if you have a mole that falls into one of the ABCDE categories, don’t panic. Just make sure that you come in for regular skin checks.

“We want to avoid scaring people into thinking that every mole that has a slightly different shade of color or is slightly irregular is cancerous and needs to be removed,” Gunn said. “We don’t save people by removing moles. We save people by detecting melanoma early.”

Gunn advises patients to keep an eye out for two things: the ugly duckling sign and the growing-too-fast sign.

“If there is a mole on your body that looks significantly different from your other moles, it needs to be checked out,” she said. “We’re talking about extreme asymmetry or extreme variation in color or diameter. Something that sticks out as being very different from other moles on the body.”

Also, keep the “E” of the ABCDEs in mind. If a mole is changing too fast ““ typically defined as noticeable changes from one month to the next ““ it should be checked out by a dermatologist, Gunn said. Sometimes, melanoma can be tricky and look very bland. But if it’s melanoma, it’s usually growing fast, which is why it’s such a bad cancer.

No matter your skin type, you should see a dermatologist to learn about your risk of skin cancer and to learn how often you should come in for skin checks according to that risk. And, if you’re worried about a mole, it’s always best to get it checked out. Nowadays, you’ll most likely be told to simply monitor the mole for changes and won’t leave the office ““ as you might have in the past ““ with a scar.