How to examine your skin for skin cancer
Last year, 69-year-old Isabel Lievano's board-certified dermatologist diagnosed the persistent black spot under her nail as melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Though she lost her nail, she was thrilled that her dermatologist was able to save her finger and her life. Today, Isabel is a strong advocate for skin self-exams.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Anyone can get skin cancer, which is why Isabel’s story shows how important it is to perform a skin self-exam,” said board-certified dermatologist Hope Mitchell MD, FAAD, who is in private practice in Ohio. “Checking your skin can help catch skin cancer early when it’s highly treatable. I encourage my patients to regularly check their skin for anything that is new or changing.”
Performing a skin self-exam means taking note of all the spots you see on your body such as moles, freckles, and age spots. Skin cancer can develop anywhere on your skin (including the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, mouth, eyes, genitalia, and buttocks, and is one of the only cancers you can usually see on your body. If you have darker skin, skin cancer is more likely to develop in areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, such as under or around your nails, palms, or soles.
During a skin self-exam, Dr. Mitchell says you should check your skin and nails for the ABCDEs of melanoma:
- A stands for ASYMMETRY. One half of the spot is unlike the other half.
- B stands for BORDER. The spot has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border.
- C stands for COLOR. The spot has varying colors from one area to the next, such as shades of tan, brown or black, or areas of white, red, or blue.
- D stands for DIAMETER. While melanomas are usually greater than 6 mm, or about the size of a pencil eraser, when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
- E stands for EVOLVING. The spot looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.
You should also check your skin for signs of basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a type of skin cancer that grows slowly and deeply. According to Dr. Mitchell, BCC can appear as a dome-shaped growth, a shiny, pinkish area, a black or brown growth, a white or yellow waxy growth, or a sore that heals then returns. SCC may appear on your skin as a crusted or rough bump, a red, rough flat area, a dome-shaped bump that grows and bleeds, or a sore that either does not heal or heals and returns.
Once you know the warning signs for skin cancer, Dr. Mitchell recommends following these tips to check your skin:
- Examine your body front and back in a full-length mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised.
- Bend your elbows and look carefully at your forearms, underarms, fingernails, and palms of your hands.
- Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, your toenails, and the soles of your feet.
- Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part your hair for a closer look at your scalp.
- Check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
Make sure to record the spots on your skin and nails, including the location of the spot and whether it has changed,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Ask someone for help when checking your skin, especially in hard-to-see places like the scalp and back. If you notice a spot on your skin that is different from the others or that changes, itches, or bleeds, make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist.”