How to Self-Examine for Signs of Skin Cancer

Self-examining yourself for skin cancer is an important, proactive step you can take in your own health.

<p>FreshSplash/Getty Images</p>

FreshSplash/Getty Images

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the entire world, and it’s estimated that one in five people in the United States will develop skin cancer before they’re 70. Certain factors can put you more at risk of developing skin cancer, like having fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, and lots of exposure to the sun and/or tanning beds.

We don’t say this to scare you, but rather to stress the importance of routinely self-examining for signs of skin cancer and making sure you visit your dermatologist regularly. When detected in its early stages, the five-year survival rate for melanoma —the most concerning form of skin cancer—is a whopping 99%. That’s nothing to snuff at.

“Self-skin checks are so important. You are the first line of offense for skin cancer,” says Stefani Kappel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in California. “I have had patients who have performed self checks at home and then come in to see me as a dermatologist for a consultation or biopsy.”

Keep scrolling for an in-depth rundown on how to check for skin cancer at home, what signs to look for, and advice for when you should schedule an appointment with your dermatologist.

How to Check for Skin Cancer At Home 

Performing at-home skin cancer checks is a powerful way to take control of your own health. The rule of thumb is to do a thorough check at least once monthly, and you can also keep an eye out for any skin changes during routine grooming like showering or applying lotion.

Know the ABCDE's of Melanoma

“When doing a self skin check you will be looking for the ABCD's of melanoma,” says Dr. Kappel. “These are the concerning changes that can happen with existing moles.”

  • Asymmetric: One part of the spot looks different than another

  • Border Irregularity: The border looks jagged, blurred, scalloped, or undefined

  • Color variation: The spot contains multiple colors versus a single shade

  • Diameter: Be on the lookout for anything larger than the size of a pencil eraser

  • Evolving: The spot has changed over time in any way

Dr. Kappel says that any of these signs are considered a red flag for melanoma and warrant a visit to the dermatologist. Also be aware of any symptoms such as itching, scaling, pain, inflammation, or redness.

What to Look For in Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer

“Non-melanoma skin cancers—like basal cell and squamous cell cancer, which are the most common cancers—often do not have pigment,” notes Tiffany J. Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. “They can be pink, skin-colored pearly bumps or scaly plaques of skin that are non-healing.”

She says that she’s had many patients come to her explaining that these spots started out like pimples but never went away. Sometimes they may bleed but that’s not always the case.

Check Your Entire Body

Check for these skin cancer signs from head to toe, including your legs, arms, stomach, feet, and chest. In addition to the easy-to-check areas, take some time to examine lesser-viewed areas.

“There are many areas on our bodies that we do not check regularly, like our backs, back of legs, in between fingers and toes and the soles of our feet,” says Dr. Libby. “This is why it is important to take an inventory to note any changes and allow for early detection of any cancerous lesions.”

Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a Miami-based board certified dermatologist, recommends using a mirror for this. She also points out some other easy-to-miss areas, such as genitalia, underarms, palms, soles of feet, and behind your ears. For some of these areas, you may be able to recruit a close friend, family member, or partner to help.

Be thorough, taking your time to be thorough and careful. This process takes about 10 to 15 minutes, so put on some good music and make an event of it.

Schedule an Appointment

If you notice any of the above signs of skin cancer, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist for a closer look. “I always say that ‘patients know their body the best,’ and very frequently in my clinic, patients are coming in pointing out new or changing lesions that end up warranting a skin biopsy,” Dr. Libby says.

It’s also important to routinely visit your dermatologist similar to an annual doctor’s checkup. In the same way self-breast checks are supplemental to mammograms, at-home skin assessments are supplemental to visiting your dermatologist at the recommended frequency. For some—particularly those with lots of freckles and moles or with a history of skin cancer—that may be as often as every three to six months. Others may only need to go every one to three years. Your dermatologist will recommend an ideal frequency for you. 

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