Dear Dr. Abell: What is Mole Mapping?

Mole mapping typically involves photography of the entire body. These photographs are saved digitally. These images serve as a baseline and assist the physician during the patient’s annual skin exam to see if any skin lesions are new or have changed. This is particularly useful in monitoring people at higher risk for melanoma. This may include individuals with numerous moles, a history of dysplastic or atypical moles, a personal or family history of melanoma, a history of multiple sunburns, or a history of tanning bed use.

The average dermatologist sees up to 10,000 patients per year. It is impossible for any medical provider to accurately remember whether any individual mole is new or has changed. If a mole is changing appearance or is a new lesion, it may be suspicious and require a biopsy to determine if it is a skin cancer. When melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is detected early, it is almost always curable. However, if the melanoma has spread, it is difficult to treat and can be fatal. Therefore, early detection is critical.

There are several advantages of mole mapping. The digital images can be used to determine whether a lesion of concern is new or has changed. The physician can then determine if the change necessitates a biopsy or continued surveillance. The patient and the physician do not have to rely solely on memory. The patient can keep an electronic file, CD, or prints of their photographs that can be transported to a new physician if the patient ever changes healthcare providers.

However, mole mapping has not yet been proven to save lives. There may be a melanoma in a hidden site that has not been photographed. Early melanoma may look like a normal mole or other benign skin lesion, and might be missed. Melanoma, particularly nodular melanoma, may grow rapidly; it may reach a dangerous size before the next planned skin exam. Thus, while mole mapping serves as a significant aid, it is not a substitute for annual full body skin examinations by your dermatologist.

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