How to Spot Skin Cancer

Detecting it early could save your life.

Is It More Than a Mole?

May is skin cancer month, but for most of us, it’s easier to spot-check moles and freckles in late summer, when you’re still in minimalist clothes and flip-flops. Be sure to include parts you barely notice (the tops of your feet, “toe cleavage”). Skin cancer is sneaky. Enlist your partner or best bud, and give each other’s rear view a thorough look, too. Back sides of arms and legs are trouble spots. What to look for? Coming up. Why bother? Catching skin cancer early almost guarantees a cure.

Keep an Eye on Your Skin

Want to cut your risk of fatal melanoma by almost half? Make an appointment with the mirror. Research shows that people who regularly check themselves for suspicious skin changes are 44% less likely to die from melanoma than those who do not check. One study found that nearly 75% of all incident melanomas were discovered by self-exam or by family members. Because melanoma becomes more dangerous the thicker it grows above and below the skin surface, early detection of melanoma is essential to survival.

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer starts in the epidermis — the part of the skin you can see — so the warning signs are easy to spot. The two major classes of skin cancers are malignant melanoma, which affects the cells of the skin that produce pigment, and which is typically the most deadly; and nonmelanoma skin cancer, which is more common but less deadly than malignant melanoma. All but 1% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

This nonmelanoma skin cancer originates in the bottom layer of the epidermis (the basal layer). The tumor often appears as a flat, scaly growth that is red, pink, or white, or as a small, raised bump that is shiny or waxy. It may also have a crusty texture or involve an open sore that has not healed, or heals temporarily. They usually arise on the sun-damaged skin of the head and neck, are slow growing, and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Approximately 75% of all skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas. There is a 95% cure rate when properly treated.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This nonmelanoma skin cancer originates in the upper part of the epidermis. The tumor may appear as a lump that grows and has a rough surface, or as a flat, reddish patch that grows slowly and is scaly. It is found mainly on areas of the skin that are often exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. These tumors are more likely than basal cell carcinomas to spread to tissues beneath the skin, and, unlike basal cell carcinomas, they can metastasize (spread to other parts of the body), but they rarely spread to other organs.

Malignant Melanoma

By far the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma begins in the melanocytes, the cells of the skin responsible for producing pigment (melanin). Although this is the rarest form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma is on the rise. Because malignant melanoma has a tendency to spread, treatment is essential. If treated in the early stages, melanoma is highly curable.

What Melanoma Might Look Like

Early melanoma can appear without warning but may develop from or near a mole. Use “ABCDE” to remember the signs and symptoms of this type of cancer:

Asymmetry — One-half of the mole doesn’t match the other.
Border — Edges of the mole are ragged.
Color — Pigmentation is not uniform and may spread into the surrounding skin.
Diameter — Mole’s diameter is larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
Elevation — Mole is raised above the skin and has an uneven surface.

Any one — or all — of these traits may indicate malignant melanoma. If you see any of these, schedule an appointment with your doc.

Get Familiar with Your Skin

Now that you have a better idea of what to look for and what is at stake, it’s time to patrol your skin for potentially cancerous lesions. Getting to know what’s normal for you is the best place to begin. The better you know your skin, the more likely you’ll be able to notice whether there are any changes. Learn where your birthmarks, freckles, moles, and blemishes are and what they usually look and feel like.

How to Do a Self-Exam

The goal of a skin self-exam is to look thoroughly at all areas of your body, so you’ll need a well-lit room with a full-length mirror, plus a hand mirror and a blow dryer. The bathroom is generally an ideal location. Also, having your significant other around to help will make things much easier. Grab your camera so you can take pics of all the areas you can — and even can’t — see. These will be useful for your doc to check in the future if anything suspicious shows up.

Patrol Your Skin in 6 Steps

1. Look at the front and the back of your body in a mirror.
2. Look at your left and right sides. Raise your arms and bend your elbows.
3. Look at your underarms, forearms, and palms and the back of your upper arms.
4. Sit down and look at the back of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet.
5. Use a mirror to examine the back of your neck and scalp. Use a blow dryer on a low setting to examine your entire scalp.
6. Use a hand mirror to examine your back and your buttocks.