The dictionary offers several meanings for a mole. Amidst others, it can be a deceiving infiltrator, someone who hides amongst a group of people to secretly further the interests of a rival party. So does the skin cancer melanoma. It lurks behind the mask of one of many harmless skin blemishes.
The majority of skin moles, however, are benign skin-coloured or brown to black bumps. They are there since birth or appear later in life, especially after extensive exposure to UV radiation. Moles are rare amongst dark-skinned people but are very common on fair skins.
People with many moles are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer than are people with low numbers of moles. In addition, moles are easily mistaken for melanoma. Medical practitioners are, therefore, becoming increasingly cautious. They either closely monitor changes in appearance or cut a sample for a microscopic analysis. They sometimes completely remove a mole if it develops into a cancer suspect or into a nuisance.
UV radiation damages the tiny blood vessels in the skin. In this case it is the veins that dilate and form small dark-blue or violet ‘lakes.’ Venous lakes appear as soft and compressible bumps on the sun-exposed skin of the face, neck and ears. Although common, it develops more often in the elderly. Race appears to be no factor. Some medical scientists support the theory that blood clotting (thrombosis) is at least partially to blame.
Like moles, other than being a cosmetic nuisance, venous lakes are harmless and painless. On the other hand venous lake can look similar to skin cancer. A microscopic analysis prevents a misdiagnosis.
Solar keratosis is also known as actinic keratosis. It is not a skin cancer but is a common pre-cancerous condition caused by excessive UV radiation. Early diagnosis and treatment is important. Minor surgery with scalpel, laser or chemicals can remove the growth.
Horny, scaly bumps on sun-exposed skin are the first signs. They can become tender and quite aggressive. At this stage, solar keratosis has an estimated 10% chance of evolving into cancer. Because the damaging effect of UV radiation adds up over a lifetime, the elderly – particularly if they are fair-skinned – are the most likely victims. Due to the modern suntan culture, however, the number of patients of a younger age has increased steadily, with people in their early twenties now being diagnosed with some form of solar keratosis.
If solar keratosis doesn’t fool your medical practitioner into diagnosing you with skin cancer, then keratoacanthoma might. This skin blemish can look exactly like non-melanoma skin cancer and is clinically not different to one of its manifestations. Keratoacanthoma begins its life as a small pimple but, if untreated, grows very rapidly into an unsightly crater, often with a solid crusty core.
Again, UV radiation plays a major role. A minor injury, however, appears to trigger the growth. Keratoacanthoma’s big difference to real cancer is that is self-healing: once it reaches its maximum growth it begins a cycle of self-destruction and disappears within a few months. The growth is often surgically removed before it leaves an ugly scar. Keratoacanthoma is less common in dark-skinned people.