Check the moles on your feet

Skin cancer consists of tumors that grow in your skin and can eventually spread if left untreated. Melanoma is known as the most serious and deadly form of skin cancer. This type of skin cancer develops in the melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin color. Melanoma can spread from these cells to other parts of your body.

You may be on the lookout for unusual-looking moles around areas of your skin that are exposed to the sun on a regular basis, such as the arms, chest, or face. However, foot melanoma is pretty common and can occur especially in the skin that’s exposed when you wear sandals on a sunny day.

Learn more about the causes and effects of foot melanoma and why this condition is often overlooked.

On the skin, melanoma looks like moles that continue to evolve in shape, size, and color. Such moles also have uneven borders and asymmetrical sides. While melanomas are often brown in color, they can sometimes be red, tan, or white. Blue or black moles are also possible. Rather than being one solid color like most moles, melanomas tend to have a combination of colors.

Melanoma can also occur in your toenails. This is most common in the big toes of your feet. The cancerous cells underneath the nails can look like purple, brown, or black bruises. These also tend to look like dark streaks that grow vertically in the nail. Unlike nail injuries where the nail eventually grows out, these streaks don’t go away if they’re melanoma. You may also experience nail brittleness, as well as nails that crack easily. Learn more about skin cancer symptoms here.

Like melanoma that occurs in other parts of the body, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is the most common cause of foot melanoma. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, exposure to excessive sunlight and tanning bed use as a teen or young adult significantly increases your risk for melanoma. Excessive UV exposure can also turn a noncancerous mole into melanoma.

Wearing sunscreen and protective clothing can help prevent melanoma when you’re outdoors. However, the feet are often neglected in this process and left exposed to UV rays.

Who is more at risk for developing foot melanoma?

Aside from UV ray exposure, melanoma tends to occur more often in people with certain risk factors. These include:

  • having fair skin
  • being sensitive to the sun (you may find that you burn easily)
  • having a history of at least one severe sunburn before the age of 18
  • having preexisting moles on your feet
  • having at least 50 moles throughout your body
  • having a family history of melanoma or another type of skin cancer

If you detect an unusual spot on your foot, it’s time to see a dermatologist. This type of skin specialist will first examine the mole. In some cases, they’ll be able to tell it’s cancerous right away. Your dermatologist will take note of the color, size, and shape of the mole. They’ll ask you about the history of the mole and how it’s changed since you first noticed it.

A biopsy will help properly diagnose the spot on your foot. This requires scraping off a small part of the mole to send to the lab for evaluation.

When foot melanoma is diagnosed during its early stages, the cancer is easier to treat. In stage 0, the melanoma is in the top layer of your skin only (called the epidermis). Stages 1 and 2 mean that the spot is thicker and has possibly broken the skin. However, the cancer hasn’t spread yet.

Complications can arise in the final stages of melanoma in the foot. In stage 3, melanoma spreads to your lymph nodes or to another spot either on or near your foot. Stage 4 — the most serious form of melanoma —means that the cancer has spread to another part of your body or an internal organ. These two stages are considered the most life-threatening.

Treatment options for foot melanoma depend on the stage of diagnosis, as well as your overall health. When caught early, your doctor may simply cut out the mole and any skin immediately surrounding it. This method is called an excision, and it’s performed in your dermatologist’s office.

Advanced cases of foot melanoma might require one or more of the following:

  • chemotherapy — a treatment that uses chemicals to kill the cancer cells in your body
  • immunotherapy — a type of treatment that stimulates the immune system to attack cancer cells
  • lymphadenectomy — a type of surgery that removes affected lymph nodes
  • radiation therapy — a treatment that uses radiation to shrink tumors

When caught early, foot melanoma is easier to treat. According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, foot melanoma often isn’t detected until it’s reached a more advanced stage. This in turn makes the melanoma more difficult to treat, and it may spread to other parts of the body.

For these reasons, foot melanoma can have a higher rate of fatalities. It’s important to look for unusual spots throughout your entire body, including your feet.