The desire to avoid unpleasant symptoms and medical costs is a good enough motivator for many of us to develop healthy habits. In the hope that it will prevent illness, we eat well, exercise, wash our hands and take vitamins. Avoiding skin cancer is no exception — we wear sunscreen, seek the shade and cover up with clothing to reduce our risk of developing the disease. Unfortunately, though, even those with the most diligent sun protection regimen aren’t immune.
Since preventive behaviors can’t stop every illness, learning to nip diseases in the bud can prevent the most severe symptoms and consequences. Skin cancer is a great example of how detecting and treating a disease early can have an impact on a person’s prognosis. With melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent if the cancer is found early. The survival rate drops to 62 percent if the disease reaches the lymph nodes, and 18 percent when the disease metastasizes to distant organs. While the more common basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas have high cure rates, they can become disfiguring and even life threatening if not caught early.
Jeffrey Brackeen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Lubbock, Texas, says that the most important motivator for early detection is a higher survival rate, but that there are several other benefits to taking action against skin cancers right away.
“Early detection allows us to treat some skin cancers with topical medicines or modalities that are not effective for cancers that are found later,” Dr. Brackeen says. “Even when treated with surgery, early skin cancers leave smaller scars and tend to have much fewer complications (like bleeding and infections).”
To help catch any tumors early, The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an annual skin check with a professional dermatologist. But it’s still important to keep tabs on your skin between appointments — the Foundation and Dr. Brackeen recommend performing a self-exam once a month. Dr. Brackeen says a good self-exam covers every nook and cranny of the body, and that performing a thorough exam requires the right setting and tools. He recommends performing your self-exam in a room with good lighting, with both a full-length mirror and hand mirror available to help you look at hard-to-see spots like your back.
You can use a hair dryer to see the skin on your scalp, and Dr. Brackeen says that combing through wet hair after a shower is also an option.
Even with mirrors, some spots can be hard to see. This is why Dr. Brackeen recommends enlisting a trusted friend or family member to help you out. That person can even take a few reference photos of the areas you can’t see, which will allow you to compare each month’s photos and make sure nothing is new or changing.
Any new or changing moles are certainly a red flag for potential skin cancers, but there are a few more characteristics that could be a cause for concern. Dr. Brackeen says to note any growths that bleed, scab or don’t heal over the course of a few weeks. Keep an eye out for any pearly looking moles, moles with multiple colors and moles with jagged or irregular edges. You should also look for moles that look significantly different from the rest of your moles or are larger than six millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser). For identifying potential melanomas, the ABCDEs are a good rule of thumb (though not a catch-all). The most important point is that if you find a spot on your skin that concerns you, do something about it.
“If you find something fitting one of these descriptions or anything else that does not feel right to you, don’t wait, hesitate or delay; see a dermatologist,” Dr. Brackeen says.
Monthly checks combined with an annual professional skin exam should be sufficient for most people, but some may want to increase the frequency of their self-exams. Dr. Brackeen says that those with a history of skin cancer and those with many moles should perform self-exams more often, as they are at a higher risk for skin cancer.
Combined with a complete sun protection regimen, frequent self-exams can help you be confident that you’re doing all you can to keep yourself safe from the world’s most common cancer.