While people use maps to chart a trip's progress, dermatologists are using the same technique to track changes in the human's largest organ.
Skin mapping is a tool physicians use to follow spots, moles and other changes that may occur over the course of time.
It's a process usually done on people who are at a high risk for skin cancer, or those interested in being extra vigilant about any changes in their moles, said Dr. Tarun Kukreja, a dermatologist with Franciscan Skin Cancer Care Center in Munster.
"The basic premise in mole mapping is that lots of photographs are taken to provide a baseline size and location for every mole and growth on the skin," he said. "After that, pictures are taken at intervals to identify changes in the moles, which are sometimes analyzed by computers."
Dr. Karen Jordan, of Dermatology Associates of Northwest Indiana in Merrillville, says everyone should be aware and monitor the moles and spots on their bodies, regardless of whether they have a high risk of skin cancer or not.
"In our office, we carefully record and monitor our patients' skin lesions with high resolution photographs and diagrams that are saved and compared each visit to any prior visit photographs," she said. "This helps track individual lesions for any changes over time."
Any suspicious changes may result in a biopsy of the lesion.
"This involves cleaning the area, then numbing the skin with an injection," Jordan said. "A small piece of the tissue is removed and a bandage is placed over the small wound."
A pathologist then examines the tissue to reach a final diagnosis, said Dr. Rami Haddad, an oncologist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital.
"He will report specific information of the features or the melanoma, like depth and thickness, that will help us stage it correctly and decide on further management," he said.
Amy Jo Steinbruecker, the Indiana manager of PR for the American Cancer Society, said a recent study by the organization revealed the probability of developing melanoma of the skin for those age 60 to 69 is 1 in 130 for men and 1 in 248 for women.
Those numbers rise to 1 in 50 for men and 1 in 120 for women 70 and older.
Melanoma, a dangerous type of skin cancer that can result in death if left untreated, is not as common as other types of skin cancer. In fact, Steinbruecker said the overall number of skin cancer cases is difficult to estimate because nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous, do not have to be reported to cancer registries.
While skin cancer can be hereditary, it often is preventable by avoiding environmental factors such as sun and artificial UV light exposure, Haddad said.
Kukreja says it's important for people to regularly check their moles for any changes.
"While mole mapping can be helpful, regular skin checks with a dermatologist and self-skin checks are usually enough for most patients," he said.
When caught early, Jordan said skin cancer is highly treatable.
"That's why it's vitally important for everyone to learn how to check their own skin regularly and see a board-certified dermatologist is anything is changing," she said. "The five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 98 percent, so be sure to check your skin regularly."
FYI: dermatologyindiana.com, southlandoncology.com, franciscanhammondclinic.org
PULLOUT BOX POSSIBILITY
THE ABCDE system can help you recognize possible symptoms of melanoma:
Asymmetry: One half o the abnormal area is different from the other half.
Borders: The edges of the growth are irregular.
Color: Color changes from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown or black, and sometimes white, red or blue.
Diameter: The spot is usually larger than 6mm in diameter - about the size of a pencil eraser.
Evolution: The mole keeps changing appearance.
Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine
PULLOUT BOX POSSIBILITY
Common warning signs
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change to your skin, such as:
* Reddish patch of dry skin that won't heal
* Flesh-colored (or pink, red or brown) pearl-shaped lump
* Pimple that just won't clear
* Sore that bleeds, heals and then returns
* Scar that feels waxy - may be skin-colored, white or yellow
* Hard (scaly or crusty) reddish bump, patch or pearl-shaped growth
* Open sore that itches and bleeds; it can heal and return
* Scaly patch on the lip; skin on the lip can get thick
* A mole on the skin that is growing, changing shape or changing color
* A mole that looks scaly, oozes or bleeds
* New dark spot on the skin that looks like a mole, but grows quickly
* Pain, itch or bleeding in a new spot on the skin
* Streak (usually brown or black) underneath a fingernail or toenail
* Bruise on the foot that does not heal
Source: Dr. Karen Jordan, Dermatology Associates of Northwest Indiana