Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, affecting 1 in 5 people during their lifetime.
Catching melanoma early is key. It’s more likely to spread and harder to cure. Because of this, melanoma has a
But in its early stages, before it spreads beyond the skin’s outer layer, melanoma is much easier to cure. This is why regular skin cancer screenings are so important if you’re at risk for skin cancer.
Let’s explore what it means to screen for skin cancer and warning signs that you should see your doctor.
Screening for cancer means looking for cancer in someone who shows no sign of cancer. When it comes to skin cancer, that means a physical examination of the skin. A dermatologist typically does this.
During the examination, they will look for irregularities such as:
Doctors follow the ABCDE rule when examining moles for signs of cancer.
ABCDE skin screening rule
- A: asymmetry (mole is different from one half to the other)
- B: border irregularity (border is blurry or ragged)
- C: color is not uniform (may be different shades of tan, brown, black)
- D: diameter of more than 1/4 inch
- E: evolving (changes over time)
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a full-body professional skin exam once a year, or more often if you’re at increased risk.
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center doesn’t recommend routine skin cancer screening. But the center does advise lifelong surveillance if you’ve had melanoma in the past. The center also recommends risk assessment by a dermatologist if you have:
- two or more blood relatives who have had melanoma
- more than one atypical mole (dysplastic nevi)
- precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses
If you’ve already had skin cancer, talk to your doctor about how often you should get screened. Other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- lighter skin
- lighter hair and eyes
- skin that burns easily
- history of severe sunburns
- excessive sun exposure
- exposure to tanning beds
- many moles
- a weakened immune system
- previous radiation treatment or other exposure to radiation
- exposure to arsenic
- inherited gene mutations that increase the risk of melanoma
If you’re scheduled for a skin cancer screening, here are a few things to help you prepare for the screening:
- Don’t wear makeup. This will allow your doctor to more easily examine the skin on your face.
- Remove any nail polish. This will allow your doctor to fully examine your fingers, nails, and nail beds.
- Keep your hair loose so your scalp can be examined.
- Take note of any concerns, like skin spots, patches, or moles, and point those out to your doctor before the exam.
Before the skin screening exam begins, you’ll need to take off all your clothes and put on a gown. Depending on your skin cancer risk and medical history, you may be allowed to keep your underwear on.
Your doctor will conduct a head-to-toe examination of all your skin. It may include the skin on your buttocks and genitals. Your doctor will likely use a bright light and magnifying glass to examine your skin more thoroughly.
If your doctor finds anything suspicious, they’ll decide if it should be monitored or removed. A mole or tissue sample can be removed immediately or on a return appointment.
The tissue will be sent to a lab to see whether it contains cancer cells. Your doctor should receive the results within a week or two, and will share the results with you.
Whether you’re at high risk or not, getting familiar with your own skin is very beneficial.
By doing self-exams, you’ll be more likely to notice changes early on. When you do spot something suspicious, be sure to follow up with your dermatologist as soon as possible.
According to the American Cancer Society, regular skin self-exams are especially important if you’ve had skin cancer or are at higher risk.
Plan on doing your skin self-exam in a well-lit room after you bathe or shower.
While facing a mirror, check:
- your face, ears, neck, chest, abdomen
- underneath breasts
- underarms and both sides of arms
- your palms and the tops of your hands, between fingers, and under fingernails
Sit down to check:
- the front of your thighs and shins
- the top and bottom of your feet, between your toes, under toenails
With a hand mirror, check:
- the back of your calves and thighs
- your buttocks and genital area
- your lower and upper back
- the back of your neck and ears
- your scalp, using a comb to part your hair
If this is your first time doing a self-exam, take note of how moles, freckles, and blemishes look and feel. Get to know what’s normal so you’ll notice when something’s abnormal.
You can even take photos if there’s an area you want to watch. Repeat the exam once a month.
Whether you just happen to notice something abnormal or you’re performing a self-exam, here are the warning signs and symptoms of different types of skin cancer.
For basal cell carcinoma:
- a waxy looking bump
- a flat, flesh-colored lesion
- a brown scar-like lesion
- a sore that bleeds or scabs, then heals and comes back
- a firm, red nodule
- a flat lesion with a scaly or crusty surface
- a large brown spot with darker specks
- a mole that changes size, color, or feel
- a mole that bleeds
- a small lesion with irregular borders and variations in color
- a painful lesion with itching or burning
- dark lesions on your:
- mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, vagina, and anus
If you think you should be screened, talk to your primary care doctor, or make an appointment to see a dermatologist.
Be sure to mention if you’ve noticed any changes to your skin. It may also help to take a photo of the area of concern so your doctor can monitor changes.
Most cases of skin cancer are curable when caught early. Melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer that tends to spread to other parts of the body when not detected and treated early on.
Screening for skin cancer involves close examination of the skin. Talk to your doctor about your risk for developing skin cancer and whether you should be screened. You can also make an appointment to see a dermatologist.
Performing self-exams is a good way to get familiar with your own skin. If you notice anything of concern, see your doctor right away.