George Woodbury MD 2/13/23
An Atypical Mole is a sign of increased risk of development of a type of Skin Cancer called Melanoma. Since the 1970s, large studies have shown that as many as 2-4% of the American population carries at least one mole that meets the criteria for an Atypical Mole.
So what is a Mole, and what is an Atypical Mole? A Mole or Nevus is a collection of pigment-producing cells in the skin: melanocytes. Nevi occur in junctional, compound, and intradermal types, depending upon which level of the skin that the melanocytes reside in. The average person has between 5 and 35 moles, which generally develop between the ages of 5 and 35, though they can also be present at birth (in which case they’re called Congenital Nevi.
Nevi in and of themselves are not considered high risk, but it’s an ironic fact that after exposure to Ultraviolet Light (UV rays) from the sun or from tanning salons, the very cells that have been protecting us from damage to our DNA can change into premalignant or malignant cells. A malignant melanocyte is the start of a Melanoma, a condition which will be diagnosed in over 190,000 Americans this year, leading more than 7000 fatalities, or about one American death every 50 minutes. The good news is that if detected early, Melanoma is often very treatable by a minor outpatient procedure, but if detected late, it can compromise one’s health and well-being.
So what does an atypical mole (atypical nevus or dysplastic nevus) look like?
Atypical Moles tend to be darker than the person’s other moles, sometimes with a raised center and a flatter edge. Their appearance can vary. There are certain criteria used by skin pathologists to define what amounts to an atypical mole under the microscope, after the mole has been removed.
Can a person be born with an Atypical Mole, or do they develop in childhood?
Most Atypical Moles develop in childhood, but some can actually be present at birth.
Do atypical moles need to be completely removed?
There is still some debate between one Dermatologic Surgeon and another on this point. Many Dermatologists – including myself – feel that it’s a good idea to attempt to remove atypical moles completely – because some of these moles later develop into Melanoma.
If a person has had at least one atypical mole (dysplastic nevus) removed, is regular monitoring by a Dermatologist helpful?
If a person has many dark or atypical moles, the Dermatologist may consider taking medical photos of the ones that are under close observation, to help in watching for changes. Some such patients with Atypical Moles have dozens of or even scores of dark moles, so close observation of the remaining moles is the best course of action.
Man with Melanoma on head
How can I get more information, or a chance to look at pictures of atypical moles or even of melanoma?
A best first move is a consultation with a Board-certified Dermatologist for a skin check-up, an especially high priority for people with skin lesions that could be cancerous. My own Dermatology practice has been with Rheumatology and Dermatology since 1993. Or you can find Board-certified Dermatologist close to you at the American Academy of Dermatology’s “Find a Dermatologist” site. Plug in your zip code, and you’ll get a list. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery also has a search site (ASDS.org) that allows people to find Dermatologists willing to participate in free skin cancer screening, by zip code. The Skin Cancer Foundation also supports a screening program at different cities annually, around the country. All three organizations have photos of melanoma on their web sites. The American Society for Mohs Surgery also has information on this topic on their web site.
For more on the topic of Melanoma, check out “Understanding the Melanoma Crisis: Scarlet’s Story,’ a 2018 Youtube movie sponsored by my own Dermatology practice.
Remember: the bottom line, as stated by Benamin Franklin, is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Early detection definitely saves lives.
George Woodbury Jr. M.D. 2/13/2023
Board-certified Memphis Dermatologist at Rheumatology and Dermatology Associates PC
8143 Walnut Grove Road
Cordova TN 38018
President of Big River Silk Skincare Inc.