Mole screening: why it's such a good idea

Skin cancer is on the rise in the UK, killing nearly 2,000 people every year. Thankfully the number of melanoma screening centres is also on the increase, helping people to spot the early warning signs and prevent cancerous cells from developing. If you are worried that you have a suspicious mole or know that you have had too much sun exposure, read on... 
By Nicole O'Neil, Life & Style Editor
An asymmetrical mole // A woman sunbathes in a floppy hat (image © Rex Features)
An asymmetrical mole
Each year, more than 76,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are registered in the UK and more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma. This year alone 1,800 lives will be lost to skin cancer in Britain and it is now the most rapidly growing form of cancer in the UK, according to Cancer Research.
Skin cancer: the facts
Non-melanoma skin cancer is very common, while melanoma is less common but more serious. It is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in young adults aged 15-34. Melanoma (a type of skin cancer that appears as a coloured mark or growth on the skin) usually develops in cells in the outer layers of the skin, but can spread to other parts of the body. The earlier the disease is detected, the greater the chances of successful treatment.
What increases your risk of contracting melanoma?
Age: as with most cancers, the risk of getting skin cancer increases with age - but the number of melanoma cases diagnosed in young people is disproportionately high, according to Cancer Research.
The sun: Excessive exposure to the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. The ultraviolet rays that come from the sun penetrate skin cells, causing sunburn, skin ageing and DNA damage. It is this damage that can cause skin cancer to develop.
Sunbeds: Like the sun, sunbeds give out harmful UV rays that damage DNA and cause skin cancer. In some cases, the UV rays from sunbeds can be 10-15 times higher than those of the midday sun.
Skin type: People who are fair-skinned, especially with fair or red hair and lots of moles or freckles, are at greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Sunburn: A history of sunburn doubles the risk of melanoma. Sunburn is the skin’s reaction to being over-exposed to UV rays and, while the colour fades, the damage is permanent.
What are the best practices to avoid getting skin cancer?
Be sun SMART
Spend time in the shade between 1pm and 3pmMake sure you never burnAim to cover up with a T-shirt, hat and sunglassesRemember to take extra care with childrenThen use at least factor 15 sunscreen.
Also, report mole changes or unusual skin growths promptly to your doctor.
Increasingly, private medical clinics are springing up across the UK to screen people who fear they may be at risk of skin cancer. These can include those who have freckly, pale skin, those with a higher than average number of moles or those who have used sunbeds, sunbathed regularly or suffered with sunburn in the past.
We paid a visit to The Mole Clinic in central London and met trained screening nurse Megan Dawe.
As she scanned for suspect moles, Megan revealed some shocking facts about the rise of skin cancer in the UK: today, more people are now dying in Britain from melanoma than in Australia. And whatever you do, stay away from those sunbeds. They increase the risk of getting skin cancer by 75%.
“We recommend annual check-ups for people who are most at risk, those with fair skin or lots of moles,” said Megan. “The average person has 25 moles on their body so many more than this could place you in the higher risk category. The best prevention is keep to checking your skin regularly for any changes, for example every three months.”
What to look out for:
“When examining your moles, look out for the ugly duckling,” said Megan. “The one that looks different to the family of moles that live on your skin.
“People often think that raised moles are more problematic than flat ones, but this is not necessarily the case. What you’re looking for is an asymmetrical mole, any moles with a diameter larger than 5mm, moles with an irregular border or moles containing several different colours.
“And be aware that moles can grow under your fingernails and toenails. Bob Marley died from a melanoma under his toenail, a fact which not many people are aware of!”
I was impressed by my visit to the mole clinic. I’ve had screenings at London hospitals before on the NHS and found that the Mole Clinic definitely took a very thorough approach. Megan used a magnifying torch to closely examine each mole – and took photographs of any suspect moles so that they could be sent to doctors via a TELEDerm™ service. This is where a magnified image of the mole is sent to a dermatological expert for closer inspection.
It was quite frightening to see the moles magnified several hundred times. They ended up looking like the ones you see on the posters in your doctor’s surgery. I had two suspects that needed checking out – one which it has been recommended that I have removed and another which The Mole Clinic would like to reassess in two months' time. Who knows, maybe my visit to The Mole Clinic saved my life?
Either way, I think clinics such as these are offering an excellent service in helping young people like myself, who have enjoyed a little too much sunshine, to have regular check-ups and hopefully prevent any dangerous changes taking place in our skin.
It takes 45 minutes to have your moles screened and costs £115 (or £95 if booked with a friend or with MOLEMap™).
A GP referral is welcome but not required.
Call 020 7734 1177 to make an appointment. The MOLE Clinic™, 9 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TG.
If you are concerned about a mole on your skin, you should also contact your local GP and they will arrange for you to see a visit to a dermatologist at an NHS hospital.
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