Don't call it a birthmark. (I hope you read that LL Cool J's voice.) Although the mole that sits a few millimeters to the right of my mouth has been there for years, I wasn't born with it. The first photo I remember noticing it in was my second-grade school picture, which I've generously shared with you below. It was the size of a pencil point, smaller than some of the freckles on the nose I had not yet grown into.
My mole didn't stay tiny. As many do — even healthy ones — mine slowly grew larger as I got older. By the time I entered middle school in the early '90s, it was slightly raised and about the same size as Cindy Crawford's mark, which was very convenient considering she was surging in popularity at the time, helping to make a feature 12-year-old bullies might otherwise taunt me for seem kind of cool. It continued to grow ever so gradually, and by the time I was in my mid-thirties, it had gone from the size of a pencil point to that of a pencil eraser. Or one of those mini M&Ms they put in McFlurrys. Or even one of those weird, puny, overcooked Kix bits found at the bottom of the cereal box.
But the size didn't bother me. Although a few people had made unsolicited comments suggesting it had gotten unattractively large or should be removed, I still considered it very much one of my trademarks and, in fact, drew attention to it by darkening its naturally light brown color a bit with an eyebrow pencil.
It wasn't until one late-October evening, in the backseat of a cab, that I was scared into considering removal. I felt something dripping down my chin, and like a stone-cold weirdo, I turned on my phone's front-facing camera instead of wiping whatever it was away — and I'm glad I did, because I would've ended up with a blood-smeared hand. My mole had spontaneously started bleeding, as if it had heard Halloween was just around the corner and wanted in on the festivities. (And yes, I took a picture.)
For someone who had been assured by multiple dermatologists for multiple decades that my mole was of the low-risk variety, the sudden bleeding came as a frightening shock. I checked to make sure I hadn't accidentally scratched it — negative — and I hadn't plucked a hair from it recently. So what the actual hell was making my mole bleed without any apparent injury? When it happened again the next afternoon, I got in touch with New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner to help me figure out what was going on and what we should do about it.
"Any time a patient reports that a mole is changing, it needs to be given special attention," Zeichner recalls. "In your case, I decided that a biopsy should be performed to make sure that the change in size, as well as the bleeding, did not represent a cancerous change."
Immediately, I was like, Well, shit. This isn't good, because even if the results show nothing scary, the biopsy itself meant immediately and permanently changing the appearance of my beloved mole. This is because Zeichner would be extracting the sample by using a punch tool, which is basically a tiny cookie cutter that takes out a cylinder of skin from the core of the mole. That, of course, means it would have to be stitched up, changing its size and shape. But the other option would have been essentially shaving the whole thing off, and Zeicher, knowing I didn't want a full removal, decided on this technique in hopes of not only salvaging the mole, but ultimately reshaping it into something closer in size to my middle-school-era mark.
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At first, though, I was left with an oblong mole — a noncancerous one, thank goodness — with an obvious demarcation where it had been stitched together (pictured below). I have to admit, as happy I was to still have my mole, I wasn't thrilled with its new shape. I looked forward to going back to Zeichner to try to make it rounder, but I actually put it off for a while, I think because I was worried that the second procedure wouldn't give me the results I wanted, and that I'd ultimately have to remove it.
When I did finally return to Zeichner several months later, however, he worked some serious magic — or what he'd probably argue was highly educated skill — to remove what I'd started lovingly referring to as the tail of my mole. "Essentially, I gave you a round-appearing mole," he explains. He was able to stitch it up in such a way that, once it healed, and scarring blended right into the edge of what is a now round, smaller mole. "The process ultimately meant a smaller scar than if we had attempted to remove the entire spot initially."
If my mole hadn't been in that classic beauty-mark location, it's very likely that I would have asked Zeichner to just remove it entirely. And, of course, had the biopsy come back indicating skin cancer, I would have removed it. But I was so grateful to learn that it could not only be biopsied without total removal, but ultimately made to look really damn cute.
"Everyone is different. I commonly have patients come in requesting cosmetic removal of large moles," Zeichner says. "The goal of treatment is to minimize any scarring on the face and maximize the cosmetic benefit. Often times 'debulking' the mole, or just making it smaller, gives a good balance between cosmetic improvements and minimal scarring."
Considering how comfortable I was with my mole before it started inexplicably bleeding, it really surprises me how large I now perceive it when I look back on photos. Although I might not have had its size reduced for cosmetic reasons, I'm thrilled with the cosmetic results.
And if, for any reason, I have no choice but to remove it in the future, I'm getting that sucker tattooed right back on.
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