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Get to Know Your Moles

Moles come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which can be a normal thing. However, it's important to pay attention to the moles you have on your skin, as they can change or new ones may appear. Changes such as these are "red flags" that you need to have your healthcare provider check out.
One of the best ways to monitor for problems is to get to know your moles -- every one of them. This includes those on your scalp, those on your back (using a mirror), and even those areas that don't see the sun.
It is recommended to check your moles once a month. This helps you to become familiar with your skin, including where your moles are located and what they look like. Becoming familiar with them helps you to notice if there are any kinds of changes in size, shape, or color.
The skin contains certain cells called melanocytes. These cells are responsible for making the brown pigment that gives skin its color. However, in some areas of the skin, melanocytes form growths that make dark spots -- moles.
If the cells in the skin become damaged, such as by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, it can trigger mutations that cause the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. These tumors (melanomas) originate in the melanocytes in the skin. These melanomas can form as new spots on the skin or can develop from an existing mole.

How to Spot a Cancerous Area

There are differences between a normal mole and one that may potentially be cancerous, but the changes can sometimes be difficult to detect. Normal, benign (noncancerous) moles can be many different colors; however, they are usually an even shade throughout the mole. In most cases, they are an even shade of brown.
Normal moles are also usually symmetrical, meaning that if you drew a line down the middle of the mole, both sides would be the same. These moles also tend to have a sharp, well-defined border.
However, a potential melanoma mole may contain a mixture of several different colors, such as brown, black, blue, red, white, and tan. They may also be asymmetrical, meaning both sides will be different. Melanomas may also have a border that is notched, diminished, or uneven.
Size is another thing to watch for. Normal moles are usually small (less than ¼ inch -- the size of a pencil eraser). Although melanomas may start off small, they are usually bigger than ¼ inch by the time they are identified.
If you discover a new mole, or if you notice an existing mole changing in color, shape, or size, contact your healthcare provider. He or she can determine whether a biopsy needs to be done to see if the cells of the mole are cancerous.
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