July 19, 2006

“Mole mapping” may help people spot melanoma

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Few people follow experts'
advice to regularly inspect their skin for signs of cancer, and
even fewer do it thoroughly and accurately. But a new study
suggests that a simple diagram of the body could help.

Researchers found that people who "mapped" their moles on a
drawing of the torso were better able to catch new growths than
their peers who relied on visual memory alone.

In this case, the new growths were merely computer
manipulations of digital photographs of the study participants'

But in real life, a simple mole-mapping diagram could help
people find melanoma early, according to Dr. Martin A.
Weinstock, the study's senior author.

The best way to detect melanoma is through regular,
thorough self-exams of the skin, looking for new growths or
changes in the size, shape or color of existing moles. But most
people neither regularly nor thoroughly inspect their skin,
Weinstock told Reuters Health.

"It's there to see," he said, "but you have to look, and
you need to do it systematically."

To help people do that, Weinstock and his colleagues at
Brown University Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island,
came up with the idea of "mole mapping" -- giving patients a
simple drawing of the body on which they can mark the location
of existing moles, then hopefully catch any new growths when
they arise.

For the current study, reported in the Journal of the
American Academy of Dermatology, the researchers gave 88 men
and women instructions on how to do a skin self-exam, then
asked them all to perform one before a follow-up visit two
weeks later.

Half of the study participants also received a diagram of
the back to help them document their moles. The rest served as
a comparison group.

When they returned for their follow-up visit, participants
were shown digital photos of their backs that had been taken at
their initial visit. They were told that some pictures had been
manipulated and some had not; their task was to identify what,
if any, changes had been made in each photo.

In the end, 52 percent of the diagram group correctly
assessed their photos, versus 33 percent of the comparison
group. In instances where a skin growth had been added to the
photo, 60 percent of the diagram group caught it, while, again,
only 33 percent of the comparison group gave an accurate

A thorough skin exam includes using full-length and hand
mirrors to see the back of the body, and inspecting easily
forgotten areas like the scalp, the soles of the feet and the
skin between the toes.

Ideally, skin self-exams should be performed once a month,
Weinstock said. When melanoma is caught in its earliest stages,
he noted, the disease has a 95 percent survival rate. The
survival odds plummet, however, once the cancer has spread to
other parts of the body.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology,
August 2006.