Getting a skin cancer diagnosis can be a scary thing. But if caught early enough, skin cancer is highly treatable. Knowing skin cancer symptoms and having regular exams is key to early detection, even for pre-cancerous spots on your skin. Find out how to perform a self-exam and what to expect from a skin cancer screening so you can quickly eliminate the cancer and confidently return your skin to health.
Skin cancer is the world’s most common cancer, with 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime. The types of skin cancer are: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It looks like a small, pearl-shaped bump or a pinkish patch of skin. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads, but should be taken seriously if found, as it can affect other parts of the body if left untreated. Squamous cell carcinoma is the next most common skin cancer and looks like a scaly patch, a sore that can heal and re-open or a small, red bump. Melanoma is often considered the most deadly form of skin cancer because it can spread so quickly and extensively. Frequently, melanoma starts as a mole and then develops into skin cancer. All of these skin cancers are more likely to develop in areas that receive high sun exposure, such as the face, head, ears, neck, arms and chest. Indoor tanning can also lead to the development of these cancers. If you are light skinned or have a history of sunburns, you are more likely to develop skin cancer.
Because skin cancer is visible, it can be easy to detect and treat, even in its early stages. It is even possible to detect precancerous spots and treat them before they develop into cancer. Actinic keratosis is a term that describes a type of pre-cancerous growth. Actinic keratoses are rough, scaly patches that can develop in areas that have high sun exposure, such as the face, neck, ears, scalp and forearms. The Mayo Clinic describes the patches as usually less than 1 inch in diameter, sometimes showing up with a hard and wart-like surface, possibly stinging or burning, and being pinkish or brownish in color. Actinic keratoses can be precancerous lesions that eventually develop into squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. The patches of rough, scaly skin tend to appear in people over 40 and can take years to develop. As it is difficult to distinguish whether an actinic keratosis is cancerous or not, it is important that you see a dermatologist if you have one, especially if it grows in size, changes shape or starts to bleed. A dermatologist can evaluate the spot and remove the affected skin if needed.
Most people have a number of moles, and most of these moles are completely healthy. But because moles can develop into melanoma, it is crucial that you watch your moles for any signs of cancer. Melanoma can also develop in areas of your skin without moles. A skin cancer screening that catches a melanoma at its first stage (cancer stages go from I-IV) is highly treatable because it hasn’t begun to spread to other parts of the body. The best way to keep an eye on your moles is to use the ABCDE method. A = asymmetrical shape - look for moles where one half is different than the other half; B = border irregularity - notice moles that have a notched or scalloped edge; C = changes in color - pay attention to moles that have multiple colors or an uneven coloring; D = diameter - notice moles that grow larger than ¼ inch or the size of a pencil eraser; E = evolving - pay attention if any changes occur in your mole, including the development of bleeding or itching. Detecting any of these changes and going to see your dermatologist is critical for getting effective skin cancer treatment.
The Skin Cancer Foundation says “early detection starts with you;” you are the best one to catch the early stages of skin cancer on yourself. They recommend doing a self-examination at least once per month. You should do the self-exam in a well-lit space with a full-length mirror and a hand mirror. You might also want to keep a visual record of your skin features, like sun spots, moles, and patches of rough skin by marking a diagram of your body. As you perform your self-examination, you can refer to your diagram and note any changes. You should make sure to check all surfaces of your skin, especially those areas that receive a lot of sun exposure and areas that have been sunburned. Don’t forget to check your scalp (using a blowdryer and another person can help with this), under your nails (without polish), on the backs of your limbs, your armpits and buttocks. If you see any changes to your skin or the following developments, contact a dermatologist: open sores that don’t heal; areas of your skin that crust over and bleed repeatedly; moles or dark spots on your skin that change in appearance (see the ABCDE of checking moles); a growth that enlarges that is white, transparent, black, brown, tan, or multicolored.
In addition to your monthly self-check, you should also schedule an annual skin cancer screening with your dermatologist. The screening will be brief, usually only lasting about 10 minutes. If your doctor finds any suspicious spots, he/she may biopsy the spot during the appointment and send off the removed skin to a lab to check for skin cancer. To prepare for a screening, you should come with information about any spots that have changed or concerned you during your self-check, remove all nail polish, wear your hair loose so your doctor can check your scalp, and be prepared to remove make-up if your doctor needs to check certain spots on your face.
To make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist, contact Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area. The experienced dermatologists at Vanguard can perform your skin cancer screening and provide treatment (like surgical excisions) and preventative tips for early-stage cancers. Don’t delay -- early detection is key.