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Tattoos and skin cancer: pigment can hide moles

August 13, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Millions of Americans head to tattoo parlors to get "inked" each year, but a new study says you may want to think very hard about where you place them. Doctors call tattoos and skin cancer a bad mix.

Upland resident Paul Krause, 41, has had some touch work done, but it wasn't from a tattoo artist. Underneath all his ink, doctors were able to spot malignant melanoma. Since then suspicious moles have been popping up frequently.

"At that point it started being every three months they'd find another funny one and then they found another funny one," said Krause.

"It seems that more people have tattoos and certainly the incidence of melanoma has gone up," said Dr. Mark Faries, director of melanoma research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. "And so those two things can collide in certain people."

Faries says people with a history of skin cancer like Krause have to be careful about where they place tattoos. Moles and birthmarks should be avoided.

"With the tattoo, with that added pigment, it can hide changes, it can hide suspicious characteristics and it makes it harder to find the things early," said Faries.

And when you decide to remove the tattoo, that also causes a problem. Lasers are designed to remove pigment from the skin, and when you remove pigment from a mole, that makes it harder to spot cancer.

"If the area is de-pigmented by the laser treatment, then it's harder to find the melanoma until it's grown to a larger size," said Faries.

German researchers who examined melanomas in tattoos say if you're considering laser removal, make sure to have moles biopsied before the procedure.

But Dr. Faries say even if you do keep moles uncovered, dermatologists still have to be pay extra attention to tattoos because half of melanomas occur in skin that didn't have a previous mole in sight.

Krause has this advice for anyone considering a tattoo: "When that time comes and they tell you you have melanoma - it sucks, it's not a good conversation with a doctor. But I wouldn't ever discourage anybody from getting tattoos, but definitely play it smart and don't get things that would cover up moles."


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