Most people have moles and freckles on their skin, some have more than others, but generally, they are completely normal and are no cause for concern.
Sometimes, moles can begin to change in appearance so it’s important that these are checked by a specialist skin doctor called a dermatologist. Most moles that are examined are normal and harmless, however some can be cancerous.
Early detection is the best step in the prevention of serious skin cancers, which is why it’s best to get any suspicious moles checked by a doctor. Skin cancer treatments are available and many patients live a normal life after treatment if it’s detected early enough. .
In this article, King Edward VII Hospital consultant dermatologist Professor Jonathan White discusses a technique used to monitor moles, called mole mapping.
Mole mapping can be helpful if you’ve noticed changes in any moles but also if you have a large number of moles that you’d like to regularly monitor.
What is mole mapping?
Dermatologists often refer to moles as “pigmented lesions” – spots or growths on the skin caused by certain cells within the skin called melanocytes. Melanocyte cells produce melanin, the substance in the skin that gives it colour, or pigment. The more melanin, the darker the skin or skin lesion.
Mole mapping is a reliable medical technique used by dermatologists to monitor pigmented lesions on the skin to see if they’re turning cancerous or have the potential to become cancerous in the future.
Freckles, birthmarks and age spots are also referred to as pigmented lesions, but mole mapping generally looks at moles.
Mole mapping uses photography to track any changes to your moles over time. These changes can include changes in the size, shape and colour of your moles, signs that a mole could potentially be turning cancerous.
This technique is a useful tool for identifying skin cancers, called skin melanomas. Mole mapping doesn’t technically prevent skin cancer, but it does allow for the early detection of skin cancers, which means that treatment is more likely to be successful, providing a better outlook for patients.
According to Cancer Research UK, melanoma skin cancer survival rates in the UK are significantly improving. 100% of people with melanoma skin cancer will survive a year or more after treatment if the disease is caught at its earliest stage, compared with 53% of cases diagnosed in its latest stage.
What happens during mole mapping?
At your mole mapping appointment, a specialist nurse will take notes on your medical history, including any history of suspicious or cancerous moles in your family.
Your skin will then be examined by your consultant, who will take note of any suspicious moles. They will examine your skin closely using a magnifying light, looking at each skin lesion in turn. Your consultant will then take detailed photographs of your whole skin from a distance and then take close up photographs of each mole.
A mole mapping appointment usually takes around 30 minutes. It may be a little longer if you have lots of moles. You won’t need to undress fully, unless you have moles in intimate areas. You can always decline to have photos taken of any areas you’re not comfortable with showing.
What happens when I get my results?
Depending on the type of mole mapping appointment you have, your consultant may be able to discuss your results with you at the same appointment. Otherwise, you will be called in for another appointment to discuss your results.
Either way, if your consultant detects any suspicious features concerning any of your skin lesions that might suggest the possibility of skin cancer, they will discuss either taking a small piece of the mole, or removing it entirely. This can usually be carried out the same day and is done under a local anaesthetic, meaning that the area will be made numb so that you don’t feel anything. These further results are usually available approximately 2-7 days after the procedure.On rare occasions, other tests may be needed.
Depending on your results, your consultant will then discuss the next steps with you.
Who should go for mole mapping?
Mole mapping is particularly useful for monitoring people with a high number of moles and skin lesions, especially large or unusually shaped ones, and those who have a personal history or a family history of skin cancer.
The procedure is advantageous in detecting skin cancers early, and also may help to reduce the need for skin biopsies. Mole mapping can be carried out at any age, but it’s rarely carried out on children who have a much lower risk of developing serious skin cancers.
Most people at risk of skin cancer opt to have a mole mapping procedure once a year, but sometimes having them more often is advised.
Those who have a large number of moles or who have a family or personal history of skin cancer are considered a higher risk group for developing skin cancer. Anyone with pale skin that burns easily in the sun or who has previously experienced a lot of sunburn can also be at a higher risk. Those taking certain medications, in particular, immune suppressing medications, can also have an increased risk of developing skin cancer.
● If you have a mole that you’re concerned about, speak to your GP as a first port of call. If you don’t have a GP, you can make an appointment with one of our same day private GPs.
● The King Edward VII’s Hospital Dermatology Department is a leading centre for all skin conditions and diseases, including mole mapping, the management of moles and the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers.