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Does this look strange to you? Spotting suspicious moles with crowd-sourcing

Have you ever been convinced to do something by a friend or family member? Maybe it was buying a new car, starting a new exercise routine, or just trying a new dish at a restaurant.

Sometimes people need encouragement from a friend or family member to take action, especially when it comes to taking care of their health. A crowd-sourcing application from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) counts on the power of many to encourage people to have suspicious moles checked out for skin cancer.

The idea came from research at HCI to find better ways to help people recognize dangerous moles. Jakob Jensen, a researcher in HCI's Cancer Control Population Science program, says that his early research showed it's hard for individuals to recognize cancer warning signs in moles, even with training. "It was a disappointing finding," he says. "We hoped that learning skin self-exam techniques would help people recognize suspicious moles, but based on our data, it did not."

However, the next phase of Jensen's study showed that a group of people was much more successful in recognizing suspicious moles. Test groups viewed 40 images of moles after researchers told them that 10 showed clinically diagnosed melanomas.

The result? "If 19% of people are concerned about a mole image, then there's about a 99% chance it is actually a suspicious mole," says Jensen.

Now, Jensen's group is developing an application that allows people to upload photos of their moles and ask strangers to assess them for abnormalities. Jensen says a prototype of the crowd-sourcing app is still being tested. A working version should be available in the next 12 months.

MaryAnn Gerber says she would have benefitted from this application. At the age of 23, she had a mole removed from her face. "I thought it was acne for the longest time. When it didn't heal, I realized it was a mole, but didn't think anything of it."

A biopsy of the mole revealed it was melanoma.

MaryAnn's cancer was found relatively early, but that's not always the case. "When melanoma lingers untreated, it metastasizesor spreadsvery rapidly," says Jensen. "The cancer penetrates deeper into the skin and travels to other parts of the body. The chance of survival drops."

Jensen hopes the crowd-sourcing app will give the extra nudge to those debating having a dermatologist check a mole for signs of cancer. "If I posted a photo of my mole and 48% of people think it's suspicious, I'd likely tell myself okay, I really should go in," he says.

MaryAnn says the app is a great idea, but she's adamant that people should also follow their instincts. "People keep telling themselves this mole is nothing, but they really aren't comfortable," she says. "It's not crazy to get anything checked. It takes 20 minutes of your day."

According to the American Association of Dermatology, it's important to take time to look at the moles on your skin. When checking your skin, look for the ABCDEs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry - One-half unlike the other half
  • Borders - Jagged or notched borders
  • Colors - Extra-dark or several colors
  • Diameter - Larger than the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving - Any change in the above


Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.

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