A woman views a virtual gallery showing the different ways that melanoma can appear.

Melanoma: Know Your Moles

My melanoma didn’t look scary. It wasn’t even black. Mine was a tiny brownish spot smaller than the eraser on a pencil and had almost a horseshoe shape to it. It was on my upper left arm, and I never gave it a second thought. Most of us have some type of skin anomaly that we bypass on a daily basis and never think to stop and examine - I sure hadn’t. Without the keen eye of my best friend, a nursing student at the time, I wouldn’t have given it another thought.

Types of melanoma moles I was afraid of

In 2007, I had had little exposure to melanoma. The few pictures I had seen of it looked ghastly. They were black, irregularly-shaped, and looked like something that had been left unattended for decades. Those were what I looked for when I did a quick scan. I will admit, in those days, self-exams weren’t in my vocabulary. I did, however, watch religiously for anything that resembled those mangled and raised lumps of terror. I never saw those, so I never worried.

Types of melanoma moles I should have been looking for

Since being diagnosed in 2007, I have seen many images of melanoma that looked nothing like those terrifying photos. My flat, horseshoe-shaped spot wasn’t alone. Melanoma can be flat, freckle-like, and or even pinkish red. There is no uniform look to melanoma and no way to definitively rule out the danger of a suspicious spot on your skin on your own.

Insufficient self exams

My self-exams were insufficient and failing because I was trying to make my moles, lumps, and bumps fit into a nice, neat category called “not melanoma". They were flat. They were really small in comparison with the pictures I had seen. Lots of them were pink. Most were just freckles - I thought. I skimmed my skin and breathed a little sigh of relief every time I didn’t see a big black mole or a hideously misshapen freckle beginning to appear. My little horseshoe mole wasn’t irregular enough to be of concern. I kept lumping it into the 'safe' category.

My melanoma mole

Irregularity was the name of the game for me. It wasn’t dark or raised, but its borders were not regular. The symmetry was off, and it took my friend’s recent experience in nursing school to bring that to light for me. If it hadn’t raised a red flag for her, I would never have made an appointment and had the biopsy that set things in motion for me. My melanoma diagnosis may have saved my life. It absolutely started me on the road to regular checks with a dermatologist.

Seeing a dermatologist or your family doctor for a biopsy is the only way to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, if your mole is melanoma. My family’s nurse practitioner was the first to see my mole and was immediately concerned. She asked the doctor to take a look at it, and he said, “Yeah. That’s coming off.” I was stunned. This was my first rodeo with skin cancer of any type, and my little freckle was causing a lot of trouble.

Know your skin and see a professional

My advice to you is to begin your own skin checks with more knowledge than I had. Following the ABCDE criteria, you will be well on your way to pinpointing lesions or moles that need a closer look by a physician. Regular checks by a dermatologist will put you at ease and allow you to rest knowing nothing will be missed. It would be easier if they were all big, scary, and obvious, but they aren’t. Educate yourself, do monthly skin checks, and see a doctor when in doubt.

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