Catch Skin Cancer Early with Self Exams

If you’ve been outside, you’re at risk for skin cancer. That’s right – everyone is a potential target. But this most common cancer is easiest to cure if diagnosed and treated early. Learn how to be a skin cancer detective to protect your skin and health.


According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer. The five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 98 percent. Sadly, one American dies from melanoma every hour.

The first step in prevention is education. The Skin Cancer Foundation describes the main types of skin cancer:

Actinic Keratosis – Scaly, crusty growths that typically appear on sun-exposed areas like the face, bald scalp, lips, and backs of hands. They’re often elevated, rough in texture, and resemble warts. Most become red, but some can be tan, pink, and/or flesh-toned. If left untreated, up to 10 percent of AKs develop into squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer.

Actinic Keratosis

Basal Cell Carcinoma – These are abnormal, uncontrolled growths in the skin’s basal cells. They often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, or scars. BCC is the most common form of skin cancer and almost never spreads, but can be disfiguring if not treated right away.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Dysplastic Nevi – Unusual benign moles that might look like melanoma. People who have these are at increased risk of developing single or multiple melanomas. The more you have, the higher your risk.

Melanoma – The most dangerous form of skin cancer. These often look like moles, with most being black or brown. They can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue, or white. Melanoma is mainly caused by intense, occasional UV exposure. This kind of cancer can spread, when it becomes difficult to treat and can be fatal.

Squamous cell Carcinoma – This is the second most common form of skin cancer. This often looks like scaly red patches, open sores, elevated growths with a central depression, or warts. They can crust or bleed and become disfiguring. SCCs are usually caused by cumulative UV exposure over a lifetime, daily sun exposure, and intense exposure in the summer, plus UV from tanning beds.

Squamous cell Carcinoma



Women should conduct monthly body exams. Just once a month is sufficient, as it will be difficult to notice changes if you look more often, says Dr. Charles Crutchfield, MD, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Medical Director of

If head-to-toe self-exams are done regularly, they shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, says Dr. Melanie Palm, MD, Skin Cancer Foundation spokesperson.

If you’re worried about remembering whether a mole has changed since you last looked at it, Dr. Crutchfield says all you have to remember is your ABCDEs:


Benign symmetrical mole

Malignant asymmetrical mole

Border irregularity

Benign mole with regular edges

Malignant mole with irregular edges

Color variation within the mole

Benign mole with uniform color

Malignant mole with irregular color

Diameter bigger than 6 mm, the size of a pencil eraser

Benign mole, smaller than 6mm

Malignant mole, larger than 6mm

Elevated, anything that is raised

If you notice any of these, have your dermatologist check.

For more reassurance, you can do a body map. This is a “helpful tool that allows you to track your moles and lesions over time,” says Dr. Palm. “During the first self-exam, you can mark the location of each freckle, mole, birthmark, or lesion on the map. Be sure to indicate its approximate size and color so you can track any changes.”

In successive exams, you’ll find the spot on your skin that matches the mark on the map and record any new spots.

Dr. Palm also recommends taking photos of any moles you might want to monitor over time. Your smartphone includes the date and takes the guesswork out of when the baseline photo is taken, she says, and you can use the zoom function to compare the size, outline, and colors over time.

Some spots women may not think to check include the scalp, lips, backs of ears, genitals, under nail beds, and in between your toes, says Dr. Palm, who adds, “Don’t forget to remove your nail polish beforehand!” The legs and upper back are common areas for melanoma in women.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone over the age of 18 see a dermatologist annually for a full-body skin exam. This should be supplemented with a monthly skin check, of course. If you have a personal or familial history of skin cancer, a dermatologist should be seen every six months.

Risk Factors

 Melanoma can strike anyone, but there is an increased risk for people who have the following, says Dr. Crutchfield:

  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Personal history of skin cancer
  • Personal history of both multiple and blistering sunburns and long-term sun exposure
  • Fair skin
  • Red or blonde hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • 50 or more moles
  • History of breast and thyroid cancer
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light – from the sun and indoor tanning devices – is the most preventable risk factor

“Age does matter, because ultraviolet radiation exposure is a cumulative number,” says Dr. Crutchfield. “And the more sun damage you have over a lifetime, the more chance you have of developing skin cancer.”

Other signs

If you have a spot that bleeds and doesn’t heal on its own without provocation, Dr. Crutchfield says to have it looked at immediately. If you’re shaving and the razor catches the spot, causing it to bleed, this doesn’t count, he says. But if you’re washing the spot with a soft cotton washcloth and it starts bleeding, it should be seen.

The American Cancer Society lists a change in sensation as another warning signs. If you notice itchiness, tenderness, or pain, see a doctor.

Other tools

The AAD has free screenings available; look for one in your area. Several melanoma detection apps are also available, but “when it comes to skin cancer diagnosis, that’s something that can only come from a professional, preferably a board-certified dermatologist,” says Dr. Palm.

Unfortunately, the current number of two million Americans affected by skin cancer each year is rising rapidly. As the Skin Cancer Foundation says, “If you can spot it, you can stop it.” When it comes to a highly curable cancer if detected and treated early, why wouldn’t you want to be as proactive as possible?


Image credit: The Skin Cancer Foundation

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