How to detect skin cancer
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a crucial time to educate people about the dangers of skin cancer and remind them that it can affect anyone and everyone, including celebrities like Hugh Jackman. The beloved actor recently had a skin cancer scare (the biopsies came back negative, thankfully) and was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma back in 2017, which was successfully treated. This highlights the importance of vigilance and early detection. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that around 9,500 people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer every single day. That's why it's essential to check your skin every month for moles or growths that look unusual.
However, regular skin self-exams are no substitute for a professional exam — you should visit a primary care doctor or dermatologist each year for an annual full-body skin check. When skin cancers are detected early on, they are easier to treat and have a better prognosis.
What should I look for when conducting a skin self-exam?
When scanning your skin, you should look for anything that seems unusual, new, or different. Red flags include:
1. The ABCDEs
ABCDE stands for asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolving. Dermatologists look for these identifiers when diagnosing and classifying skin cancer. Melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, is often characterized by a mole with an asymmetrical shape, irregular border, uneven color, a diameter larger than a pea, and seems to be evolving or changing.
2. New growths
If you notice any new growths that don’t go away, you should follow up with a doctor. Keep your eyes peeled for wart or pimple-like growths that have been around for more than a month and don’t seem to be going away.
3. Irritated growth or sore that won't heal
Any spots that hurt, bleed, crust over, or feel rough aren’t normal. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer, often crusts, bleeds and appears as a wart-like growth or scaly red patch with irregular borders. And the most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, may show up as an open sore, red patch, or pink growth.
4. Anything unusual
If you notice any growths that seem new or that you aren’t sure about, you should always get them checked out.
How do I perform a skin self-exam?
Make sure the room you are using has good lighting to see your skin. You don’t need much equipment, but a full-length mirror is essential. This will allow you to see your entire body. It's best if you also have a hand-held mirror nearby to view hard-to-see areas of your body.
Your goal is to scan every patch of skin from head to toe. First, examine your body in the full-length mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised. Next, look at your underarms, forearms, and palms. Move downward and look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet. You might need to sit in a chair for this. Then, use a hand mirror to examine the back of your neck and scalp. Lastly, use a hand mirror to check your back and buttocks.
What should I do if I find something suspicious?
If you find anything new or unusual, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist or primary care doctor as soon as possible. You should always opt for an in-person visit instead of a telehealth appointment for skin exams. Why? Because your doctor will be able to get a better look in person.
- “How to Do a Skin Self-Exam,” Cancer.org, n.d.
- 2. “How to Examine Your Skin for Cancer, According to Dermatologists,” Prevention, June 4, 2021.