Early Detection of Melanoma

Updated November 04, 2022

Melanoma can be cured if detected early. Here, Georgia M. Beasley, MD, MHSc, a surgical oncologist at Duke Health, talks about what to look for and how to know if you are at high risk.

How to Detect Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, responsible for the majority of all skin cancer deaths. Close to 100,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed this year.

Fortunately, these cancers are usually curable if detected early. According to Dr. Beasley, patients diagnosed in the earliest stage of melanoma have over a 90% survival rate at five years, while those diagnosed at the most advanced stage have a 20 to 30% survival rate.

Early detection is not always easy. Of all the moles in the United States, only one in 20,000 to 200,000 is a melanoma, so searching for an early-stage melanoma is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The commonly recommended "ABCD" detection technique -- looking for moles that are asymmetrical, have an irregular border, have uneven color, or a diameter larger than a pencil eraser -- is quite helpful in detecting advanced melanomas, but to catch these cancers earlier, it's important to take additional steps.

Understand Your Risk Profile

About half of melanomas occur in just 1 to 5% of the population. The average age of people when it is diagnosed is 65. But melanoma is not uncommon even among those younger than 30, said Dr. Beasley. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women. High-risk groups include people who have:

  • A personal or family history of melanoma (two or more close relatives who have been diagnosed with invasive melanoma)
  • Dysplastic (atypical) moles
  • Numerous moles (generally more than 50)

If you have one or more of these traits, regular skin checks may help save your life.

Look Beyond Your Moles

Many people are told that they have "pre-cancerous" moles, but this is a poor term: dysplastic (or atypical) moles may never progress to melanoma, and instead, are better considered a risk marker for melanoma. At least half of melanomas appear in normal skin.

Look for Moles that Don't Match

Everyone's moles are different, explained Dr. Beasley, so it's hard to come up with a blanket description of normal moles versus early melanomas. If you see a new mole that looks different than your other (average) moles -- a different color, irregular shape, a more pronounced border -- you should have that different mole checked by a doctor.

Look for Changes in Your Moles

Identifying changing moles is one of the keys to early detection. All moles are new at some point, especially in young adults, so a new or enlarged mole is not necessarily a melanoma. However, if you note a changing mole, it is appropriate to seek medical advice.

Don't Rely on Memory

If you have had a previous melanoma, dysplastic moles, or numerous moles, Dr. Beasley recommends asking your doctor about total-body photography. Instead of relying on memory to determine whether a mole has changed or is new, Duke dermatologists offer total-body photography to provide a baseline for comparison at future examinations. Total body photography CDs can be used in the clinic and at home to allow for comparisons.

Heed Your Own Concerns

If you are concerned about an area on your skin, that is enough reason for your doctor to be concerned as well. Don't hesitate to ask for a second opinion if needed.

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