Skin cancer is one of the few types of cancer in which symptoms can actually be seen by the patient before they tend to be found by a physician. More than two million Americans develop skin cancer each year, so understanding the symptoms and knowing for what to look are imperatives in trying to avoid the disease. Though the disease does have a greater prevalence in groups of people with certain skin types, skin cancer affects people of all ages, races, and ethnicities, and everyone should regularly conduct skin cancer self-exams in order to stay healthy.
What You Need
In order to conduct a thorough skin cancer self-examination you need a full-length mirror and a hand mirror (or two hand mirrors), a well-lit room, and a piece of paper or notebook.
How to Begin
In order to conduct a step-by-step self-examination, start at your head and work your way down the body, examining your scalp, face, neck, shoulders and back, arms, torso, hands, legs, and feet. In young people in particular, skin cancer arises more frequently on the legs, so check the fronts, backs, and sides thoroughly. The key is to watch for anything that has changed since you last conducted a self-exam. This is the reason for the notebook: each time you check yourself, note what you see and compare to see if there are changes.
What to Look For
In addition to looking for changes in moles, sun spots, and other skin blemishes, the key to conducting a skin cancer self-exam is knowing for what you’re looking. First, note any moles or growths that are pearly, translucent, black, brown, multi-colored, or tan. Color is an early warning sign, as is shape. Thus, the second step is to notice any marks that change in color, increase in size, lack symmetry (e.g. are not perfectly round), change in texture, have an irregular outline, or are bigger than the size of a pencil’s eraser. In addition, take note of any marks that appear after the age of 21. Lastly, any small sores that remain open and do not heal, or that itch, burn, hurt, scab, bleed, or crust over are also warnings signs. If any of these are present, schedule an appointment with your physician for a professional opinion.
How Often to Check
You should conduct skin cancer self-exams once each month and have a physician conduct a thorough physical exam annually during your yearly check-up. Because the majority of humans are exposed to sunlight so regularly it is imperative that these check-ups be performed at regular intervals to catch any abnormal cell growth as early as possible. The earlier skin cancer is detected, the greater the likelihood of cure. For any additional questions, please consult your physician or dermatologist.
Source: “Self Examination,” The Skin Cancer Foundation. http://www.skincancer.org/Self-Examination/. Accessed 12 May 2010.