Subtle signs of skin cancer you should never ignore

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Melanoma is one of the most common types of cancer found in young adults aged 15 to 29.  It’s the fourth most common type of cancer found in Canadians aged 30 to 49 and it’s estimated that approximately 7,800 Canadians will be diagnosed with the cancer in 2019. Of those, an approximate 1,300 people will die from the disease.

This form of skin cancer doesn’t discriminate, either. People of all ethnicities, ages and genders are at risk. The good news is that when detected early, melanoma has a survival rate of roughly 85 per cent in men and 92 per cent in women.

That makes it important to get any suspicious moles or changes to your skin examined by a physician as soon as possible, says Annette Cyr, founder of the Melanoma Network of Canada.

“When in doubt have it checked out,” she says. “There’s no harm in going to see your family doctor. Be persistent. We’re our own best advocates in this fight.”

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Just because we’re heading into the middle of fall doesn’t mean you can take time off – many autumn and winter activities take place outdoors and in the sun. It pays to be vigilant about your skin, all year round.

In partnership with the Melanoma Network of Canada, we take a look at what moles are a potential cause for concern and the warning signs you should never ignore.

Understanding the ABCs of melanoma   

According to Dr. Elaine McWhirter, an associate professor of medical oncology at McMaster University, it’s important to check your skin for any changes at least once a month.

Get help from a friend or loved one to look at harder-to-see areas like your back, and don’t forget to examine areas of the skin that are often forgotten like the scalp or between your fingers and toes.

“What you’re looking for is something we call the ABCs of mole tracking,” she says. Standing for asymmetry, border and colour, the acronym continues beyond the three letters and reminds Canadians to look out for the diameter and evolution of the spot.

A – Asymmetry

Normal moles have a regular, round shape. Those that are cause for concern are more irregular, McWhirter says. “If you were to cut the mole in half the two sides would look different.”

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B – Border

“Look for moles that are ragged or jagged,” she advises. “Moles should be nice and round and smooth.”

C – Colour

Normal moles tend to be brownish in colour and even throughout. It’s when moles become multicoloured with flecks of red, blue or black, or looks as though it’s losing colour that you should seek medical attention.

D – Diameter

Keep an eye on larger moles and if one begins to grow larger than the tip of a pencil eraser get it checked out.

E – Evolution

Not all moles are a cause for concern, but a changing mole is one to track. Whether it was flat and now raised or has begun to bleed or itch, McWhirter advises “prompt” medical attention is needed if you notice any changes to the spot.

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“The ‘if I ignore it, it will go away’ [philosophy of thought] definitely does not work in favour of melanoma because [it] has two types of growth patterns. It can grow radially in terms of diameter and it can get bigger—they don’t necessarily go deep but they spread,” she says.
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An evolving conversation

Cyr is a melanoma survivor herself. When she had a small, itchy mole on the side of her ankle checked out in 2000, both she and her dermatologist were surprised when it came back positive for the skin cancer.

“It’s really a cautionary tale that this has to be taken very seriously,” Cyr says. “We have to use all the tools at our disposal to help diagnose. We’ve always said, when in doubt, cut it out.”

She notes cutting out every mole isn’t always practical. But checking your skin once a month for any abnormalities or changes, advocating for your own medical care and asking a dermatologist or doctor to use a dermatoscope (a special kind of magnifying glass) for a closer look when cutting the mole out are all critical steps.

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“In over half of the cases we see it’s the patient that actually recognizes there is a problem,” she says. “There’s still a lack of awareness out there, but in most cases where a melanoma is subsequently diagnosed, it’s the patient that brings it to the attention of the physician.”

Prevention is key

Nearly 90 per cent of melanoma is caused by the sun’s UV radiation, which makes any tan a dangerous one, says McWhirter. She recommends covering up while in the sun and using a broad-spectrum SPF in the range of 30-50. Remember to reapply every two hours—more often if you’ve been sweating—and wear protective sunglasses and hats as well.

“Melanoma starts in our melanin cells, the cells that make pigment,” she says. “When the UV rays hit your skin, your body’s response is to make more melanin to try and protect itself from the damage of the UV rays. But that protection isn’t terribly effective because a tan only gives an SPF of about two to three. So love the skin you’re in. There really is no such thing as a healthy tan.”

Melanoma Network of Canada is giving away a MoleScope™ to encourage Canadians to perform regular self checks of their skin to aid in the fight against melanoma. MoleScope™ is a smartphone attachment for dermoscopy that provides a high-resolution, detailed view of the skin through magnification and specialized lighting. It is valued at $100 and you can enter to win by clicking here.

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For more information, visit the Melanoma Network of Canada

Reach out to the Melanoma Network of Canada’s health care navigator to learn more about the next steps in prevention and early detection via email or call 905.901.5121 ext:108