How do I know if a mole is skin cancer?

Over the past year or two, I’ve noticed two moles have come up around my hip area. Should I be worried? Could this possibly be a symptom of skin cancer? Can I get tested for that on campus?

We’ve covered skin cancer from a few angles.  How to use sunscreen correctly to prevent skin cancer.   How the incidence of melanoma – the worst kind of skin cancer – from UV light exposure has increased dramatically over the last three decades, particularly in young women.  Even whether spray tanning is a safer alternative.  But we’ve never talked about what to do when you have a mole that’s bothering you.

In this situation, a picture really is worth a thousand words.  Click on the photo to the right for an excellent visual guide and remember your ABC’s when it comes to figuring out if a mole is worrisome.  Moles that are skin cancer tend to:

Asymmetry – have one half that looks different than the other half

Border – have a jagged or uneven edge

Color – have different colors

Diameter – be larger than the eraser on the end of a pencil (about 6mm)

Evolution – change shape or color over time

Many moles and birthmarks are totally normal, even if they meet some of these criteria, but as a dermatologist once told me in med school – nobody has microscopic vision and the only way to tell for sure if a mole is abnormal is to look at it under the microscope. 

This is called a skin biopsy, and to answer your 2nd question, yes you can get tested for that on campus.  In fact, we can do skin biopsies right here at the Student Health Center and send the tissue sample over to the pathologists at the medical center to analyze.  We also have a great network of dermatologists here in town that we can refer you to if a mole is really large or in a cosmetically important area like the face. 

If you have any concerns at all about a mole, come in and see us.  We are more than willing and able to help you decide if it is something to be worried about, and we can get you the treatment you need if it is.

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University