Skin cancer is an ongoing health problem in the United States. More than two people die of skin cancer in the US every hour. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in their lifetime.
While skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, it is also one of the easiest to treat when detected early.
“This means being familiar with your skin and knowing the warning signs of skin cancer, especially if you are at higher risk of skin cancer,” says Benjamin Kelley, MD, a dermatologist at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic.
“Being at increased risk doesn’t mean you’ll get skin cancer, but you may need to start regular screenings in case you do get skin cancer and it can be caught early,” Dr. Kelley says.
The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Melanoma makes up only 2 percent of cancers, but it is the deadliest.
Skin cancer can affect anyone, but some people are at higher risk.
Doctors recommend getting an annual skin cancer screening if you are in a high-risk category. Risk factors include:
- Red or blond hair, fair skin, freckles and blue or light-colored eyes
- More than 50 moles
- Family history of melanoma
- Personal history of basal cell and/or squamous cell skin cancers
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure
- One or more blistering sunburns
The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Doctors recommend taking sun safety seriously and regular use of sunscreen as well as avoiding tanning beds.
Along with regular exams, practice awareness and examine your skin. Learn the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your body so that you are better able to notice any changes. This could be a sore that doesn’t heal or a suspicious skin area.
A self-check should only take about ten minutes. A body mole map can help you keep track of what you find.
A self-check is best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand mirror to look at hard-to-see areas, such as the back of your thighs. A spouse, a family member or someone close to you can help you check those areas. Digital photographs can help you keep track of moles over time.
“If you notice something that worries you, make an appointment or write a note to mention at your next visit with your doctor,” Dr. Kelley says.
Even if you aren’t at increased risk, it’s still a good idea to monitor your skin and make an appointment with your primary care doctor or dermatologist if you notice an irregular mole or spot.
A dermatologist is a specialist who is trained to perform detailed skin checks looking for abnormal moles, skin cancer and other skin conditions.
A skin cancer screening serves at least two functions:
- It points out any moles that could be dangerous or may already be cancerous.
- It rules out moles that pose no danger at all.
During the initial exam, your doctor will check you from head to toe and identify any moles or skin discolorations that could be of concern. If any are found, you’ll want to keep an eye on those areas to make sure you catch any skin cancers early.
For melanoma, ask yourself:
- Is the mole asymmetrical?
- Are the borders indistinct?
- Do the colors shift?
- Is it larger than ¼ inch?
- Is it changing?
If you or your doctor find something of immediate concern, the next step could be a biopsy, where a small amount of tissue is taken for examination under a microscope. A check is made to see if there is any cancer present. Often, 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,” Dr. Kelley says.