How to Check for Skin Cancer — Recognizing Symptoms and Early Signs
Skin cancer is caused when abnormal skin cells begin multiplying out of control, which leads to the formation of malignant tumors. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. — nearly 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer each day. Luckily, when caught in its early stages, skin cancer is also the most treatable form of cancer. Melanoma has a 5-year survival rate of 99%, when discovered and treated early.
Skin cancer is the easiest cancer to detect, since most forms appear on a visible area of your body. Once you learn what skin cancer looks like, you have a greater chance at beating it early. However, some skin cancers show up in well-hidden places — read more to discover how to perform skin cancer self-checks, and when to head to the dermatologist.
How to check for skin cancer
Most doctors recommend monthly self-checks for skin cancer, especially if you spend a lot of time out in the sun. You should also get your dermatologist to check for skin cancer regularly. Here's how to perform monthly self-checks in front of the mirror:
- Check your entire body in front of a full-length mirror. Don’t forget to check your back and sides, keeping an eye out for new spots or moles, or moles or spots that have changed.
- Raise your arms and check underneath them. Also, bend your arms to investigate the back and underside of your forearms, places that you don’t necessarily see every day.
- Check the front and backs of your legs — don’t forget the bottoms of your feet, and even in between your toes!
- Hold a small mirror behind you while looking in the full-length mirror to check the back of your neck and your scalp.
- Continue using the smaller mirror to check all the way down your back, and even your buttocks.
What are the first signs and symptoms of skin cancer?
Unlike almost every other cancer, early skin cancer symptoms are almost always seen before they are felt. You can appear and feel completely healthy and still have skin cancer. Your first red flags that point to skin cancer come in the form of visible changes to the skin. This is why it’s very important to perform regular self-checks — they will help you become very familiar with the shape and size of your moles, and help you find irregularities more quickly.
What does skin cancer look like?
Skin cancer can manifest in many different ways. Some common types of skin cancers look like:
- Scaly patches on the skin
- Black or brown lines under fingernails or toenails
- Sores that don’t completely heal
- Hard, dome-shaped lumps
- Moles that grow or change shape
What type of doctor checks for skin cancer?
Your primary care provider can provide your initial skin cancer screening, and even show you how to perform your own self-test. If you don’t have a primary care provider, you can find a provider who can walk you through a skin check at Tripment Health. If a provider finds a lesion or growth on your skin that looks suspicious, he or she will likely refer you to a dermatologist for further evaluation.
"Regular skin cancer screening is vital, because screening is absolutely the best line of defense against skin cancer. Also, everyone should ask their doctor to examine their back, as the back is an area which often is not routinely inspected, and so skin conditions on the back can easily be overlooked," says Rosabelle Magloire Chism, ARNP, one of Tripment Health's trusted providers. "Screening is of course important for all races, but African Americans should be particularly vigilant, as skin anomalies can be more difficult to detect in those with darker skin."
How does a dermatologist check for skin cancer?
Your dermatologist will begin with a simple visual examination, much like the self-check examination you do at home. If he or she finds a suspicious-looking spot, she may use a dermatoscope to get a better look. A dermatoscope is a special magnifying device with a light that helps your dermatologist see the details of spots and moles to check for skin cancer.
Will I need a biopsy to check for skin cancer?
If your dermatologist has found an abnormal area of your skin, and thinks there is a chance it might be cancerous, she will perform a skin biopsy. During this procedure, a sample of skin will be taken from the abnormal area, and examined under a microscope. Biopsies are generally done under local anesthesia, during which the area immediately surrounding the spot of skin is numbed before the sample is taken. Biopsy results are generally ready in 4-10 days.
What is the ABCDE method for checking for skin cancer?
One way to remember how to perform skin checks for cancer is by using the “ABCDE” method. Check for:
- Asymmetry – moles that are not uniform in shape have a greater chance of being cancerous.
- Borders – irregular borders or borders that are not well-defined may indicate cancerous moles.
- Color – benign skin spots and moles tend to have only one color, whereas cancerous spots can be made up of more than one color.
- Diameter – melanomas from a mole and other cancerous spots tend to exceed 6 mm in diameter.
- Evolution – moles and spots that change their color, size, or shape, should be checked out by a dermatologist.
When do I need to check moles for skin cancer?
If you have moles that do not pass the ABCDE test, or are itchy or painful, you should head to the dermatologist for a professional exam. If you have questions or concerns about any spots on your body, or are worried about moles, sores, or changes in color, it’s best to get them checked out right away. Skin cancer is most treatable and curable in its earliest stages.
Treatments for skin cancer
Depending on the type of skin cancer found, your treatment options could range from a simple excision (surgical removal) to chemotherapy. Common skin cancers, like melanoma, can often be treated with surgery, removing the mole itself and a small amount of skin surrounding it. Other types of skin cancers, like carcinomas, may require further action, such as immunotherapy, radiation, or chemotherapy.
If you think you may have a mole or lesion on your skin and want a second opinion, contact your primary care provider. If you don’t already have one, you can search for a provider on Tripment Health and set up a consultation.
How often should I get checked for skin cancer?
Perform a self-check once a month, especially if you live in a sunny climate, or spend a lot of time outside. Annual skin cancer examinations by your provider are also recommended.
How long does it take to get the results of skin biopsy?
Depending on your provider, skin biopsies typically take 4-10 days to process.
When should I get a spot checked for skin cancer?
If you have a spot on your skin that has noticeably changed, or was not there before, consider making an appointment for a skin cancer examination — especially if the spot does not pass the ABCDE test.