Wondering if that mole is cancerous? Look at illustrations, not photos

September 13, 2017 by Andrea Christensen, Brigham Young University
Credit: Savanna Richardson/BYU Photo

After a summer of cumulative sunburn, you find yourself extra paranoid about the newfound mole on your shoulder. So you Google "signs of skin cancer" and spend an hour wading through mortality stats and one disturbing image after the next—more overwhelmed than when you started.

Nearly 75 percent of melanomas are initially detected by patients or other laypeople, so promoting effective self-examination (SSE) is a top priority for dermatologists and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Problem is, studies show current SSE training materials—whether in brochure or online form—are often ineffective.

"Dermatology is a highly visual field, so we need to look more closely at our visual training," said BYU communications professor Kevin John, who used eye-tracking technology to show that illustrations are actually more effective than photos in helping people spot problematic moles.

For this study, recently published in the Journal of Health Communication, John and colleagues at the University of Utah showed participants SSE brochures, some with illustrated visuals and some with photographic. As with his prior eye-tracking studies, which he has been doing for more than a decade, he focused on people's fixation points—the spots where "their eyes have stopped long enough for their brain to figure out what they're looking at."

The two primary SSE methods both offer visual or illustrated examples of moles and have patients look out for specific characteristics. The ABCDE method teaches people to look at asymmetry, border, color, diameter and evolving features of their mole to get a sense of whether it might be cancerous. More straightforward is UDS, or ugly duckling sign. "That basically says look at all of the moles on your body and if you see one that looks different from the others, get it checked out," John said.

Regardless of the method, John and his co-authors found that photographs helped participants become more confident in telling whether a normal mole is normal. On the flip side, illustrations led participants to fixate on atypical moles longer than photographs did.

The takeaway? "If you are trying to make somebody more effective at determining that a mole is atypical, which means potentially cancerous, then you use illustrations," John said. "And if the average person is equipped with basic criteria to tell whether a mole is suspicious or not, hopefully that will get them to a doctor," said John. That, in turn, can save lives.

The risk of developing melanoma in the United States is one in 55, up from one in 120 three decades ago—and Utah consistently ranks No. 1 in the nation for new melanoma cases. The disease kills more than 50,000 people worldwide annually. And though early detection dramatically improves prognoses, it can be hard to come by for two reasons: first, said John, people aren't always cognizant of their skin, and second, not everyone has access to or makes time to go see a dermatologist.

As such, John hopes these findings will be used to develop more effective SSE training guidelines. "It can inform pamphlets that are in doctors' offices, it can inform advertisements that are looking at skin cancer—it can be used to inform any kind of messaging related to moving forward."

Explore further: Why some moles become melanoma still a mystery

More information: Kevin K. John et al. Do Pattern-Focused Visuals Improve Skin Self-Examination Performance? Explicating the Visual Skill Acquisition Model, Journal of Health Communication (2017). DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2017.1344750

Related Stories

Why some moles become melanoma still a mystery

August 11, 2017
Testing for two gene mutations commonly associated with melanoma would be insufficient to determine whether a mole could turn cancerous, University of Queensland research has found.

Most melanomas don't arise from existing moles, study finds

August 31, 2017
As the summer draws to a close, it's time to start putting away flip-flops, bathing suits and beach bags. But as the seasonal supplies disappear into the back of the closet, sunscreen should stay within arm's reach for year-round ...

Study of patients with melanoma finds most have few moles

March 2, 2016
Most patients with melanoma had few moles and no atypical moles, and in patients younger than 60, thick melanomas were more commonly found in those with fewer moles but more atypical moles, according to an article published ...

Moles can quadruple risk of developing melanoma

September 4, 2014
Having moles on your skin can quadruple your risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, according to a study released this week by experts at the University of Melbourne, University of Oxford, and the ...

Some smart yet easy ways to shield yourself from skin cancer

April 28, 2016
(HealthDay)—One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their life, but it can be treated and cured if detected early, a dermatologist says.

The role of smartphones in skin checks for early detection of melanoma

September 7, 2017
QUT skin cancer researchers are seeking community volunteers to participate in a skin self-examination study. Performed regularly, self-examination can alert you to changes in your skin and may improve the early detection ...

Recommended for you

Boosting cancer therapy with cross-dressed immune cells

January 22, 2018
Researchers at EPFL have created artificial molecules that can help the immune system to recognize and attack cancer tumors. The study is published in Nature Methods.

Cancer patients who tell their life story find more peace, less depression

January 22, 2018
Fifteen years ago, University of Wisconsin–Madison researcher Meg Wise began interviewing cancer patients nearing the end of life about how they were living with their diagnosis. She was surprised to find that many asked ...

Single blood test screens for eight cancer types

January 18, 2018
Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers developed a single blood test that screens for eight common cancer types and helps identify the location of the cancer.

Researchers find a way to 'starve' cancer

January 18, 2018
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to starve a tumor and stop its growth with a newly discovered small compound that blocks uptake of the vital ...

How cancer metastasis happens: Researchers reveal a key mechanism

January 18, 2018
Cancer metastasis, the migration of cells from a primary tumor to form distant tumors in the body, can be triggered by a chronic leakage of DNA within tumor cells, according to a team led by Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial ...

Modular gene enhancer promotes leukemia and regulates effectiveness of chemotherapy

January 18, 2018
Every day, billions of new blood cells are generated in the bone marrow. The gene Myc is known to play an important role in this process, and is also known to play a role in cancer. Scientists from the German Cancer Research ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.