Cancer and Myths

A mole at risk of becoming melanoma.There is a great deal of misinformation about moles and what will cause a mole to become cancerous. This is largely due to a poor understanding of what cancer is and the relationship between moles and melanoma. Because of the understandable fear of aggravating a mole into turning into a melanoma, myths persist about what will supposedly turn a mole into a cancerous growth. Knowing more about the biological component of cancer and how it relates to moles and melanoma can calm some fears regarding moles.

What is Cancer?

Although cancer is a common disease, people's knowledge of how cancerous growths form is limited because it involves some understanding of cellular biology. Cellular biology is not particularly difficult to understand, but may be daunting. Cancer is simply a condition of uncontrolled cellular reproduction. Human cells normally have mechanisms in place to prevent uncontrolled reproduction from occurring, but occasionally, a mutation occurs that allows such uncontrolled reproduction to occur. The body has several lines of defense against this, and most often is able to kill cells that have this mutation. However, sometimes a cancerous cell manages to reproduce quickly enough to form a tissue that can defend itself against the body's own defensive measures.

When this happens, the tissue eventually forms a tumor that continues to grow unchecked. Tumors grow in or on organs, consume resources and reroute blood flow. By consuming resources, the tumor in effect starves the organ. Some tumors may secrete toxins or other chemicals, further harming the organs to which they are attached. Metastasis occurs when parts of the tumor break off and travel to other organ systems and form new tumors.

What Causes Melanoma?

A mole becomes a melanoma when the cells in the mole, specialized skin cells called melanocytes, undergo uncontrolled cellular reproduction. Moles form when these melanocytes grow in clusters and overproduce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. This results in the dark color of the mole. Generally, melanoma occurs when the melanocytes in the mole are excited in some way and begin reproduction. It is during reproduction that mutations occur and cancerous cells are born; hence it is wise to avoid causing the melanocytes in moles to reproduce.

The most common way to induce cellular reproduction in melanocytes is through exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or from tanning beds. Melanin, the pigment produced by melanocytes, is a protein that protects the skin against damaging UV radiation. Such radiation causes melanocytes to reproduce in order to produce the melanin needed to better protect the skin from sun exposure. This is how tanning occurs. However, frequent sun exposure causes melanocyte reproduction to occur each time the skin is exposed to sunlight, and makes mutations more likely. It is possible that a melanoma may eventually form. Melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer but it is by far the most fatal, causing seventy-five percent of skin cancer-related deaths. This is because melanomas grow rapidly and metastasize readily, spreading to other organ systems before the person even spots the melanoma on their skin.

What Does Not Cause Melanoma?

Melanoma's reputation is therefore understandable and perhaps even beneficial, since people have become more vigilant about the health of their skin and about responsible sun exposure as awareness of the disease has become more prominent. However, some myths persist about what will cause a mole to develop into melanoma. People have concerns about picking at moles or scratching, cutting or scraping them. None of these actions will stimulate a mole into developing into a melanoma; in fact, biopsies on moles are performed by cutting or scraping at the surface of the mole to take a sample. If doing these things would cause a mole to develop into a melanoma, doctors would not cut or scrape the mole, since potentially causing the very disorder that the doctor is trying to diagnose would be harmful to the patient.

Picking, scratching, cutting or scraping moles oneself is inadvisable simply because of the risk of infection. When a doctor cuts a mole to take a sample of the tissue, it is performed with sterile instruments in a safe environment; when a person picks at a mole and creates an open wound, it is not a safe environment and can lead to infections.

Another concern regards plucking hairs that grow out of moles. It is a common misconception that plucking hairs from a mole can eventually cause it to form a melanoma; this is untrue. The perceptions that surface trauma or plucking hairs from moles causes melanoma probably comes from anecdotes about people who did something that supposedly aggravated a mole that eventually became cancerous. This is merely specious reasoning coupled with panic about a very lethal disease.

It is important to dispel myths about what causes melanoma so that people have the best information about what actually prevents it. Taking great care to avoid injuring the surface of a mole is neither beneficial nor harmful; however, ensuring that a person is aware of the risk they take by continued use of tanning booths may actually have a beneficial impact, since UV radiation is a known risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Misinformation about health is useless at best, but at its worst it can be harmful and distract from beneficial information.