How to Detect Melanoma

With summer on the horizon, many are looking forward to weekends spent outdoors: on the boat, at the pool, or on the beach. In addition to bringing warm weather, May also brings a heightened awareness of skin cancer. May 2014 is National Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. It is important that people know how to detect melanoma and how to protect their skin from the damaging effects of UV rays.

Although Melanoma can develop from moles and dark spots on the skin, there is a difference between common moles, atypical moles, and melanoma.

Common Moles

The common mole develops when pigmented cells (melanocytes) grow in clusters. These brown spots are less than 5mm wide and usually appear within the first few decades of a person’s life. They are uniformly round and may vary in color from pink, to tan or brown. Many of these spots appear above the waist on areas exposed to sunlight.

Most adults have 10-40 moles on their bodies, and most of those moles will never evolve into melanoma.

Atypical Moles

Atypical moles are often termed dysplastic nevi. They are larger than the common mole, often exceeding 5mm wide, and lack a symmetrical or round shape. They may be a mixture of colors, including pink, tan or brown. People with dysplastic nevi have a higher than average risk of developing melanoma, but most dysplastic nevi never become cancerous.

Most physicians suggest that individuals check their dysplastic nevi monthly. They should alert their physician if they notice any of the following changes:

  • color
  • the spot becomes dry or scaly
  • size
  • the spot becomes hard or lumpy
  • shape, height, or texture
  • the spot is itchy or oozes


Melanoma begins within the melanocytes and can invade surrounding organs if not caught early. The earlier that melanoma is diagnosed, the more successful treatment will be. The first signs of melanoma are often changes in shape, size, color or texture of an existing mole. The “ABCDE” rule can help distinguish a normal mole or dysplastic nevi from melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: The shape of one half of a mole does not match the other.
  • Border that is irregular: The dark spot has blurred, ragged, or notched edges.
  • Color that is uneven: The dark spot contains shades of brown, black and tan. It may also contain areas of white, gray, red, pink or blue.
  • Diameter: The dark spot increases in size to greater than 6mm in diameter.
  • Evolving: The dark spot changes over weeks or months.

Melanomas can vary greatly. Some melanomas may express all of the above listed features, or they may only express one or two.


Taking a biopsy of the dark spot in question is the only definitive way to diagnose melanoma. A physician will take a sample of the melanocytes to test. If cancerous cells show up in the biopsy, further testing may be necessary for a full diagnosis.


Melanoma is one of the most easily prevented cancers. Overexposure to UV rays is the most known to cause skin cancers, including melanoma. Take the following precautions to help lower your risk of developing melanoma:

  1. Protect your skin by covering it with clothing, as well as a hat and sunglasses to shield your face.
  2. Reapply sunscreen every two hours while you are outside. If you are swimming or excessively sweating, reapply immediately after, and use waterproof sunscreen.
  3. Stay in the shade as much as possible, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  4. Take extra precautions to not burn while you are outside.
  5. Avoid indoor tanning beds.
  6. Examine your skin thoroughly from head-to-toe each month and make note of any new, darkened or disfigured moles or sunspots. If any are found, make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible.
  7. Receive annual skin exams from your physician.

If you have a suspicious looking mole, or feel that you are at an elevated risk for developing melanoma, consult with your physician. Early detection is crucial in successfully treating this form of cancer.

Source: The National Cancer Institute

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