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Spot The Problem

June 15, 2017

With skin cancer being among the top 10 cancers for men and women in Singapore, it is crucial you regularly examine your body for new spots or changes in existing ones. But don’t freak out just yet if you notice a new spot. We talk to Dr Ian Tan, medical physician of IDS Clinic—a clinic that specialises in clinical and aesthetic skincare solutions—to find out what your spots might be, and when you should seek medical attention.

 

How to check for spots

mole on back There are some parts that are hard for you to check yourself such as your back, back of the neck, and scalp, so get someone to help you. There are also areas that Dr Tan says most people miss – the skin between your toes, at the back of knees, and the soles of your feet.

If you tend to be freckly or have multiple moles, Dr Tan recommends The Ugly Duckling Sign method.  The logic behind this method is that most moles or spots on your body look the same so The Ugly Duckling Sign method requires you to compare your moles with one another. If any mole stands out or looks different from the surrounding ones, it could be a red flag. For example, an Ugly Duckling Sign could be a single large dark mole amongst smaller lighter moles, or the other way around. The key here is to conduct regular skin examinations so you’re aware of your body and can easily identify changes or anomalies.

 

When there’s little to worry about

For the untrained eye, differentiating between an age spot, freckle, mole or a cancerous spot can be difficult. But as a general rule of thumb, if you have a small, flat, and an evenly brown spot on your face or hands, it is likely to be a harmless freckle or age spot.

Age spots and freckles are caused by an exposure to sunlight that trigger melanocytes (the pigment-producing cells in your skin) to produce more melanin. This results in darkened spots that appear on the surface of your skin. To prevent these spots, slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30. For your face, you’ll need about a teaspoon’s worth; for your body, you’ll need roughly a shot glass’ worth. Try to apply your sunscreen before you get dressed for the day so there is time for it to sink into your skin. That way, you’re protected against UV rays from the moment you leave the house.

 

When should you be concerned?

If your spots are protruding and firm, you need to be vigilant. It could be a harmless mole, or in people aged over 50, seborrhoeic keratoses – a benign, slightly elevated, light brown to black growth that’s a common sign of skin ageing. However, it could also be a sign of melanoma – the least common but deadliest form of skin cancer.

So how do you tell the difference? The American Academy of Dermatology recommends adopting the acronym ABCDE to identify the signs of melanoma. If your mole has some or all of the ABCDE features, it is important you seek medical attention.

A: Asymmetrical shape – benign moles are usually symmetrical while melanoma lesions are often irregular shaped.

B: Border – Generally, non-cancerous moles have smooth, clear and even borders. The edges of cancerous lesions usually aren’t clearly defined.

C: Colour – While benign moles can vary in colour from red, pink, dark brown, blue or black, the colour tends to be uniform. A warning sign of melanoma is when a mole has an uneven distribution of colour or appears to have more than one.

D: Diameter – Melanoma lesions are usually bigger than 6mm in diameter.

E: Evolving – This is considered the most important trait to diagnosing melanoma. Normal moles don’t change, melanoma does. If you notice any changes in colour or size to an existing mole, this is one of the red flags of melanoma and you need to consult a doctor immediately.

At the end of the day, the only way for you to prevent unnecessary panic attacks or ignore what could potentially be a deadly situation is to perform regular self-examinations and be aware of what you’re looking for, and know what to be suspicious of. If you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor.