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An App To Map Moles

Tim Lee of British Columbia Cancer Research Agency
Marianne Berwick

  Melanoma is the most dangerous kind of skin cancer, accounting for 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths. And it affects people of all ages—especially folks in sunny New Mexico.

A researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Cancer Center helped develop a free app that aims to track any funny-looking moles on your body, so you can catch melanoma in its early stages. 

There’s also an option for users to participate in crowd-sourced melanoma research by sharing the info the app collects with a national database.

KUNM sat down with Professor Marianne Berwick to talk about the app called Mole Mapper and self-examination.

BERWICK: We’ve been trying to figure out how can we get the message out. How can we help people to look at their skin? And it’s not just looking at your skin, it’s being aware of your skin. If you’re aware of your skin, then you have 50 percent chance less of dying from melanoma. So it just means that you’re looking at various parts of your body and that you notice things.

KUNM: And how long have you been working on it?

BERWICK: Um … about 30 years? Seriously. When I first started working in melanoma, we wanted to find out whether skin self-examination would prevent you from dying from melanoma. And we found a little bit of evidence that it could. It wasn’t statistically significant, because not very many people did skin self-examination.

I actually thought that I had no moles. Now, last night I took pictures of my body using the mole mapper, and I have quite a few moles.

KUNM: Well, and like skin awareness, like you’re talking about. You know, I’m very aware of the skin on my face but maybe not everywhere else.

BERWICK:  Yeah. It’s hard to see your back. And so one thing I want to get is one of those selfie sticks. Because my husband had to do my back last night. But a selfie stick you might be able to do it yourself whenever it’s really convenient.

KUNM: And finding like a real valuable use for a selfie stick also …

BERWICK: Yeah instead of just playing around. 

After we have millions of these pictures, we’ll be able to tell which ones you should be concerned about and which ones you wouldn’t. And then we can give feedback.

What you get is a map of your body. And I’m going to show you my back. You can see the body is divided into segments, so it makes it really easy to take a picture. So here’s a picture of my back last night, and you see there’s a little mole there. But let me show you the one I didn’t know about. OK, look at that big sucker. 

I want to watch them to make sure that they don’t start changing. If something is changing—particularly if it’s changing quickly—then you want to perhaps make an appointment with a dermatologist quickly. 

KUNM: For a layperson, what should they be looking for?

BERWICK: Any changing mole or changing lesion. It doesn’t have to be a mole. It could be just a spot on your skin that you see changing. And if you have a funny feeling about a mole or a spot on your skin, then you might want to have it checked out, because feelings are actually important. Did you know that dogs could sniff out melanomas?

KUNM: I’ve heard this. I didn’t know if it was true or like an old wives’ tale.

BERWICK: No, it’s absolutely true.

KUNM: And so you’re looking for spots and a mole is like a raised …

BERWICK: It can be flat. In fact most of them are flat. So a mole is just a brown spot on your skin. And usually they’re pretty small. Usually they’re about 2 millimeters, but if they’re bigger than the head of a pencil eraser, then you really want to think about it. It might be something that would be of concern. And one thing that we think is really important about the app that we developed is that you can watch your own moles. You don’t have to go to a dermatologist all the time. 


Look for Mole Mapper in the iPhone App Store, and an Android version should be coming soon. It’s free. Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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