It's Time to Get that Mole Checked Out

by Sara Meyers

There are very few things that I enjoy doing more than laying in the sun with a good book on a hot sunny afternoon. As a child, taking time to put on sunscreen meant less time playing outside. Now, I put on at least a little sunscreen for one main reason—I do not want wrinkles. Developing melanoma has been of little concern to me, but in the medical world, it is a top priority for dermatologists.

MelaFind is a new handheld device recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used for detecting early stage melanoma. It uses light waves from visible to near-infrared wavelengths. When the device is placed against a mole, the light reflects back into the device and shows all the different molecules within the mole. This image is then compared to thousands of pictures of melanoma on a specialized computer. Within minutes, MelaFind can determine if the mole requires further biopsy or if the mole is benign. In a clinical trial performed using MelaFind, the device missed only two percent of moles that were later found to be melanoma.

Like all forms of cancer, early detection for melanoma is the key to becoming a cancer survivor. Before MelaFind, biopsies were always performed to determine if a mole was cancerous, involving painful incisions and leaving scars, while MelaFind is completely noninvasive. After reading about MelaFind, I had one concern: would a device that makes early detection so simple and painless make people less careful in the sun? With MelaFind making early detection so easy, there would be fewer reservations preventing many people from getting a mole checked than they would if a biopsy was involved, but it could also lead to fewer precautions taken while out in the sun. So is MelaFind actually as good as it sounds?

To answer my question, I spent an afternoon walking around Hillman Library to ask as many people as I could a few basic questions: 1. How often do you use sunscreen? 2. Have you ever had a mole looked at by a dermatologist? 3. Would you have a mole looked at if no painful incision was involved? 4. Would you wear sunscreen less if early detection were made simpler? 5. On a scale of 1-10, how likely do you think you are of getting melanoma?

It seems that the majority of people have the same feelings towards skin cancer as I do. During my afternoon of surveying, I talked to a total of 136 students of all race and gender and found that sunscreen is not too popular among our student population. 42 said they wear sunscreen everyday, while 75 said they only use sunscreen when they are in very strong sunlight. The remaining 19 students said they never wear sunscreen. Sadly, even given the large group of students that do not use sunscreen regularly or at all, I was not surprised when 68 percent of them told me they have never had a mole checked out nor did they plan to anytime soon. The only piece of information that really surprised me in conducting this survey was that the average answer to “How likely do you think you are of getting melanoma?” was “very unlikely”. In all of this bad news came some good news for MelaFind; students greatly preferred a method for early detection that did not involve pain, and some even changed their minds about possibly getting checked by a dermatologist.