Early detection is crucial when it comes to treating melanoma and other skin cancers, but many people do not know what to look for. Use this guide to learn how to perform a self-exam at home and what signs to look for.
Steps to Perform a Self-Exam
For most people, scanning your skin for anything out of the ordinary about once a month is sufficient. However, if you are at a higher risk for skin cancer or have lots of moles, you may want to check your skin more frequently. When doing your self-exam, follow these basic steps:
- Start with your face, including hard-to-see areas like the tips of your ears, your hairline, and lips.
- Move onto your scalp. You will most likely need to use a handheld mirror, in addition to the one you’re standing in front of to be able to do this step. You may need to ask a spouse or other family member to help with this step. You can use a blow dryer on the “cool” setting to help blow your hair out of the way as you check. If you go to a hair salon- ask your stylist to look for any discolorations on your scalp.
- Check your hands, wrists, and forearms. Be sure to check both the backs and palms of your hands, as well as between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Use a full-length mirror to check the rest of your arms, not forgetting the back of your arms and underarms.
- Check the rest of the front of your body in the mirror, including your neck, chest, abdomen, and legs.
- If you can hold a mirror in front of a full length mirror- turn around and examine your back, buttocks, and the backs of your legs. Or- ask a spouse or friend to check your skin. If you get massages- ask your masseuse to tell you if they see any suspicious looking dark moles. I have had several patients come in with skin cancers that were noticed by their massage therapists.
- Examine your feet, both the tops and the soles, and checking between toes and under toenails.
What Are Early Signs of Skin Cancer?
When scanning your body for moles and other spots, you want to look for the “ABCDEs of melanoma.” These are:
- Asymmetry. Do both sides of the mole look alike, or are there differences from one side to the other?
- Borders that are irregular. Look for any non-uniform borders or those that are poorly defined.
- Color that is varied and non-uniform. Most normal moles are one solid color. Pre-cancers and cancers may be varied in color and can include shades of brown, black, white, red, or even blue.
- Diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser. While melanomas can be much smaller than this, this is the size that they typically are when diagnosed.
- Evolution or change. If you notice that a mole looks different every time you perform your self-exam for skin cancer, it may be a melanoma.
It is good practice to keep a mole map for these checks, where you fill in the spots where you have moles, especially those ones that you’d like to keep an eye on. This makes it easier to detect any changes or new spots. I recommend taking photos or any moles and putting them in their own file on your phone for easy access. That way you can refer back to them if you are wondering if a mole has changed.
Schedule a yearly check-up with your dermatologist once a year if you do not have any risk factors for skin cancer. If your parents or siblings have had skin cancer, you should get checked at least every 6 months. In between visits, perform these self-checks every month to detect any changes. If you notice any of the above ABCDEs, contact us to schedule an appointment. It is better to be on the safe side – even if the spot turns out to be nothing – than to take the chance of letting a possible melanoma go undiagnosed.
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