Skin Cancer Awareness Month: How to Tell if a Spot is Cancerous

Vanguard Dermatology dermatologist examining patient for skin cancer Skin Cancer Awareness Month: How to Tell if a Spot is Cancerous

Is the Spot on Your Skin Cancerous?

You’ve found a spot on your skin you don’t remember seeing before, and it’s got you worried. Could it be skin cancer? Are you overreacting? While you’re not a dermatologist and can’t be expected to diagnose cancer, you can know the signs of skin cancer so you can make an appointment to see a professional if you find something suspicious. Knowing what to look for is surprisingly easy and invaluable for making sure you get the skin cancer treatment you need.

New, Changing, or Unusual

The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests being aware of 3 basic indicators of skin cancer that should prompt you to make an appointment with your dermatologist: new, changing, or unusual. If you see a new spot on your skin, like a mole, you should get it checked out. A spot that you’ve had for a while that starts to change can also be a warning sign. Some changes to be concerned about are: bleeding, crusting, oozing, enlarging border, increasing in size, or changing color. You might also notice an “ugly duckling” on your skin -- a spot on your skin that doesn’t look like neighboring spots. For example, you might notice that one of your moles is significantly larger than the others. This could be an indication of skin cancer -- see your dermatologist.

The Most Common Skin Cancers

As you stay aware of changes to your skin, it's helpful to know some of the typical signs of the common skin cancers. The most common skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC), which is most likely to be found in areas that are routinely exposed to the sun. BCC’s tend to be fragile, bleeding easily if the skin is broken. If you have a spot you nicked while shaving that doesn’t heal in a week, make an appointment with your dermatologist -- it could be a BCC. The American Cancer Society identifies the signs of BCCs as: areas that are like a scar with a firm and and flat feel and a whitish or yellow color; raised red or pink areas that could be itchy; open, crusty, and/or oozing sores that either don’t heal or keep returning; small, pink or red, shiny, waxy, or pearly bumps, which could also have blue, brown, or black areas; raised pink growths with a lower area in their center, which might have blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a wheel. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common skin cancer. Like BCCs, SCCs typically develop in sun-exposed areas. The most common warning signs of SCCs are a firm, red nodule that might have a lower center; wart-like growths; patches of skin that are rough or scaly and might ooze, crust or bleed.

The Most Deadly Skin Cancer

Melanoma is a less common cancer, but it is the deadliest because of its tendency to spread to other parts of the body if not caught or treated early. Although melanoma can manifest in a variety of ways, it often shows up in a changing or new mole. The best way to detect this type of skin cancer is to use the ABCDE’s of melanoma. A for asymmetry -- half of the spot does not look like the other half. B for border -- the border is uneven, scalloped, or irregular. C for color -- the coloring of the spot is uneven or unusual, with different shades or patches of color. D for diameter -- the spot is bigger than a pencil eraser. E for evolving -- the spot starts to change in size, shape or color.

Where to Find Skin Cancer

Skin cancer can develop anywhere on the body in people of all ages and skin tones. In people with darker skin tones, melanoma is more likely to develop in areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, like the palms of the hand and soles of the feet. Skin cancer can be found under the nails, usually noticeable as a dark line. However, most skin cancer develops on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, and these are the areas you should be especially vigilant about in both prevention and detection. These parts of the body include the face, ears, scalp, neck, chest, shoulders, arms, legs (for women) and torso (for men).

Check Yourself

Dermatologists highly recommend doing a monthly self-check so you can catch any new or changing growths on your skin. For your skin cancer check, you should have a full-length mirror, a hand mirror, a blow dryer, a well-lit area and/or flashlight and a pencil and paper. As you find spots on your skin, jot their location down so you can refer back to your notes in your next self-check. You can also use this diagram from the American Academy of Dermatology to keep track of spots. Start at the top of your head on your scalp, and use a blow dryer to lift the hair so you can see all over your head. You might want to ask someone to look at areas you can’t see in the mirror. Check your face -- don’t forget your eyelids and your ears -- these are surprisingly common areas for skin cancer to be found. As you go down your body, look at harder-to-see areas, like under the arm, on the backs of your arms and legs, or the small of your back. Check in between your fingers and toes and on your buttocks. When you’re done with your monthly self-check, make sure you have an annual skin cancer screening scheduled with your dermatologist. This will ensure that any developing precancerous or cancerous growths are spotted and treated.

Call Vanguard Dermatology

Make an appointment with Vanguard Dermatology today. Located in the greater New York City area, Vanguard has many board-certified dermatologists who can perform skin cancer screenings, treat certain types of skin cancer, and assist you with any other skin care needs.

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