Atypical melanocytes are pigment-producing cells with an abnormal appearance. They are usually identified during a physical examination when a doctor notes an unusual skin lesion and can be examined by a pathologist in a laboratory setting to learn more about what is going on inside the cells. In some cases, they are malignant, while in others, they may be benign. It is important for skin lesions to be evaluated to determine their nature before deciding on how to proceed with treatment.
Most commonly, atypical melanocytes appear in a pigmented lesion with irregular borders. The lesion may change rapidly, suggesting that uncontrolled cell growth is occurring, but this is not always the case. Often, such growths are identified by care providers, as they may be in locations where patients do not look, or patients may not recognize the tell-tale signs of a problematic skin lesion.
A doctor can take a scraping of a suspicious growth or remove it altogether and send the cells out for biopsy. If a pathologist identifies atypical melanocytes, as much information as possible about the cells will be provided. This will determine whether they are malignant, pre-malignant, or benign. If the cells appear dangerous, additional treatment such as surgery around the margins or radiation to suppress cell growth may be recommended. In other cases, a wait and see approach must be recommended.
In the case of benign atypical melanocytes, monitoring of the lesion over time is usually recommended. While these cells may not present a problem, there can be an increased risk of developing a malignant skin condition. Catching the condition earlier will provide more treatment options, and can also increase the chances of a successful treatment option. Increasing awareness of the risks of skin cancer has made many people much more conscientious about checking and monitoring for changes to the skin.
Patients may also want to consider a second opinion when atypical melanocytes are identified. Doctors who specialize in skin care are usually happy to provide referrals to colleagues so patients can feel confident with a diagnosis and treatment plan. Every doctor's approach to management of skin problems is unique, and different recommendations from a new doctor do not necessarily mean that the previous doctor was incompetent or was recommending a dangerous course of treatment. Some doctors are more aggressive and hands on, while others prefer to be more conservative. Both treatment approaches have benefits and drawbacks and are equally valid.