A monthly skin self-exam is the best way to find skin cancer early
Every year millions of Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer — more than all new cases of breast prostate lung and colon cancers combined according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. The majority of these cancers are caused by UV exposure either from the sun or tanning beds.
Luckily the vast majority of skin cancers are also curable with simple treatments especially when caught early.
How to spot skin cancer early
Performing a monthly skin self-exam is the best way to detect changes in your skin and get any suspicious spots checked out quickly. Stand in front of a full-length mirror (and use a hand mirror) to check yourself from head to toe. Move aside your hair to check your scalp and remember to look at the bottom of your feet the back of your neck and your genitals. Skin cancers most commonly appear in areas that get the most sun exposure such as your head neck face and hands — but they can pop up anywhere.
During the skin exam carefully look at moles and freckles. Most moles are benign meaning they’re not cancerous but melanoma a serious form of skin cancer can sometimes develop from moles.
Signs of skin cancer or precancerous issues
During the self-exam you want to note any changes or new growths on your skin. Basal and squamous cell are the most common types of cancer and both are highly curable. Actinic keratosis is another skin growth that often leads to cancer — regardless of type it’s best to catch and treat these spots early.
The American Cancer Society lists a few signs that indicate you should see a dermatologist:
- Flat pale areas that look like a scar
- Scaly red patches that might itch crust or bleed
- Open sores that don’t heal
- Pink growths with raised edges that are lower in the center
- Pink red or translucent bumps that may have blue brown or black areas
- Moles with rough uneven edges
- Growths that change in shape color texture or size
- New moles or growths
Treating skin cancer
A dermatologist will also perform a skin check and note any abnormalities. Your doctor may want to biopsy growths that look suspicious. This means taking a sample of tissue from the growth and examining it in a lab to look for cancer cells.
If necessary many noninvasive or minimally invasive options are available to treat precancerous growths and basal or squamous cell cancers. These procedures include:
- Surgical removal of the growth or cancerous cells and some surrounding cells to prevent spread
- Cryosurgery: freezing the tissue and scraping it off
- Topical chemotherapy: using an ointment or cream that contains drugs to kill cancer cells
- Laser surgery: using beams of light to vaporize cancer cells
- Chemical peel: applying a chemical to the tumor to kill the cells over time
Some forms of skin cancer like melanoma can be especially dangerous and can spread quickly to other parts of the body. Many moles and skin conditions are harmless but it’s always best to get them cleared by a medical professional before any problematic spots spread into deeper layers of the skin.
Make an appointment with a dermatologist to examine anything unusual that you notice during a monthly skin self-exam or plan an appointment every few years to have an extra set of eyes on monitoring your skin.
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