When to Get Screened for Skin Cancer

by Caroline Piggott, MD

Skin cancer is a quiet, ongoing epidemic. Around 20 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in their lifetimes. Around one in every 55 develops melanoma, the most deadly form of the disease. So when someone asks me: When is a good time to get screened for skin cancer? The answer is simple — right now.

Like all malignancies, skin cancer is a genetic disease. DNA damage allows cells to grow rampantly, while normal processes that inhibit growth are turned off. For the most part, DNA damage in skin cells comes from ultraviolet light. This might come from the sun or a tanning bed. But regardless of the source, the sooner we catch a cancerous lesion — particularly melanoma — the better the chances for a complete cure.

Get a baseline

The first step towards a good screening protocol is to visit your dermatologist for a thorough skin exam. This serves at least two functions. First, it points out any moles that could be dangerous or, in a worst-case scenario, may already be cancerous. The second, equally important, function is to rule out moles that pose no danger at all. This alleviates stress, and helps people focus on areas that might actually cause a problem.

Know what to look for

Annual or semi-annual trips to the dermatologist, depending on your risk factors, are well worth the time and effort. However, even regular skin checkups can’t replace personal vigilance.

During the initial exam, your dermatologist will point out any moles or skin discolorations that could be problematic. After that, your job is to keep an eye on them. Are they getting bigger, changing color, changing shape? For melanoma, ask the following questions:

• Is the mole asymmetrical?
• Are the borders indistinct?
• Do the colors shift?
• Is it larger than ¼ inch?
• Is it changing?

It’s a good idea to do a self-check once a month; it should only take about ten minutes. A body map can help track what you find. Digital photographs can also help you keep an eye on moles over time. If you notice something that worries you, make an appointment or write a note to mention it at your next scheduled visit.

Next steps

If you or your dermatologist find something of immediate concern, the next step is a biopsy. Your doctor will take a sample and a lab will check if there is any cancer present. More often than not, it will be nothing to worry about. But if it does turn out to be cancer, it’s good you found it early. Your doctor will help you navigate any necessary treatments.

This health and wellness tip was provided by Caroline Piggott, MD, a dermatologist who cares for adult and children at Scripps Clinic in San Diego.