If you have atypical moles as well as any of these other common risk factors for melanoma, you must be particularly vigilant:
• light eyes, hair and/or skin
• many moles
• a personal or family history of melanoma or nonmelanoma skin cancer
• sun sensitivity
• inability to tan
• repeated and intermittent sunburns
• a very large mole present at birth
The best advice is to “know your skin.” All family members should keep track of all the moles on their total skin surface so they can notice any changes and bring them to the attention of their physician. This can help minimize the risk of melanoma progressing to life-threatening stages. [See How to Use a Body Map.]
Anyone, especially someone with an increased risk of developing melanoma, should:
- Examine the skin completely each month, using a full-length mirror and a handheld mirror, plus a good light source to help you see each area. Ask a family member or friend to look at your back and other parts of the body that are hard to see yourself. A hair dryer is useful when checking the scalp. Don’t forget the bottom of the feet and between the toes.
- Seek prompt medical attention if you find any of the warning signs of melanoma. Show your doctor any moles in which you’ve noticed suspicious signs, symptoms or changes. Schedule a head-to-toe skin examination by a physician annually — or more often if moles are changing.
If your physician has diagnosed you with atypical moles, we advise you to:
- Write down a complete family history of unusual moles, melanomas or other cancers. Discuss it with your doctor.
- Have regular complete skin examinations at intervals suggested by your doctor, and advise family members to do the same.
- Supplement regular medical checkups with monthly self-examination of the skin.
- Check with your doctor about having a set of full-body photographs taken, especially if family members have atypical moles, many moles or have been diagnosed with melanoma. Changes can be more easily spotted this way.
- Have your doctor promptly examine any unusual or changing skin growth.
- Check if your physician recommends an eye examination, since moles and melanomas may also arise in the eyes.
- Be concerned, but don't worry excessively.
With regular self-examination, professional examination and common sense, you greatly reduce your chances that a melanoma will grow to a threatening size before it can be detected and removed.
Leonard H. Goldberg, MD
Mark Lebwohl, MD