Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and one in every five Americans will develop it in their lifetime. Fortunately, skin cancer is highly preventable with consistent sun protection, including moderated hours in the sun wearing SPF, hats, and UV protective clothing. It’s also very treatable, especially when detected early. Here, we breakdown what to look out for.
“In general, with rates of skin cancer rising, dermatologists recommend skin checks with a professional like a primary care doctor, a pediatrician, or a family practitioner. However, you should do self-skin checks, too,” says Dr. Papri Sarkar, a board-certified dermatologist based in Massachusetts. “About half of all melanomas are self-detected, and the majority of deaths due to skin cancer are from melanoma. So, you really can make a difference in your health.”
A skin check simply involves examining all areas of your skin, including the back and the seemingly insignificant areas, such as your feet, scalp, ears, hands, and inside your mouth. You’ll need a mirror, and a bit of patience, to do this well. Here’s what to look for in the process:
Remember Your A, B, C, D, and E’s
“The A, B, C, D, and E’s include asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolving,” says Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at New York City’s Union Square Laser Dermatology. “Asymmetry is when one half of the lesion is different from the other half, border refers to when the borders are irregular rather than nice and smooth, color refers to multiple colors in one area, diameter means to look for moles greater than 6mm. in diameter, and evolving means a spot that’s changed over time.”
Follow the “Ugly Duckling” Rule
The “ugly duckling” sign includes looking for outlier lesions that look atypical or different from other moles, notes Dr. Chang. Basically, you’re looking for any mole, lesion, or spot that’s “not like the others.”
Don’t Ignore a Persistent Zit
“Patients often come into my clinic complaining that they have a pimple that just won’t go away or a wound that refuses to heal. This is how skin cancer frequently presents in my clinic and patients always wish that they would have come in sooner,” says Dr. Jeanette M. Black, a board-certified dermatologist at Beverly Hills’ Skin Care and Laser Physicians.
So, if you have a zit that keeps coming back or won’t heal properly over the course of several months, this is an indication that something else might be going on. Seeking a dermatologist’s input, even if it ends up not being cancer, will at least help you address the persistent issue.
Look for Ongoing Bleeding or Crusting
This is an extension of the above advice. Any area of skin that experiences ongoing crusting, bleeding, peeling, or itching, and refuses to heal needs to be examined professionally.
Consider How You’re Feeling Overall
Outside of what you can see, it’s important to consider what you might be feeling.
“Non-melanoma skin cancers, like basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, tend to confine themselves to the skin and spread locally, though they can spread to nerves, lymph nodes, other tissues,” says Dr. Chang. “Melanoma, on the other hand, can spread into your body, cause systemic symptoms, and be deadly. Systemic symptoms of melanoma are similar to other cancers, including fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty breathing, headache, and changes in vision.”
Catching skin cancer early can make a huge difference in both prognosis and available treatments, says Dr. Sarkar. As a general rule of thumb, if you have a family or personal history of skin cancer, a personal history of blistering sunburns, more than 50 moles, or large moles, getting checked annually is ideal. This is good advice for anyone, but especially important if you fall into the above categories.
Between visits, everyone should also perform self-checks. If you see any new, changing, concerning lesions or experience other warning signs, don’t delay a formal evaluation by your board-certified dermatologist. Suspicious lesions require a skin biopsy and proper evaluation by a trained professional, who can help you determine the best treatment moving forward.