May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and the perfect time to take steps to examine yourself for signs of skin cancer. With more than 5 million cases diagnosed each year, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. Fortunately, it is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
The importance of skin cancer self-examination
When detected early, skin cancer is almost always curable. This is why getting to know your skin through regular self-exams is so important, so that any new or changing marks or lesions can be caught quickly.
Lesions, ulcers or tumors on the skin should be checked out by a skin cancer specialist right away. Marks and moles should be documented and monitored for changes during self-exams. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends head-to-toe self-examinations of the skin once a month and an annual exam by a dermatologist.
How to check your skin
Checking your skin means taking note of all the spots on your body. Spots typically include freckles, moles, birthmarks, age spots, bumps, sores, scabs, open wounds and scaly patches. For your self-exam, you'll need a full-length mirror, a hand mirror, bright lighting and a place to record your findings. When possible, ask someone to help check hard to see places.
- Examine your body front and back in the mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised. Women should lift breasts to view the undersides.
- Bend elbows and look carefully at forearms, underarms and palms. Also check between fingers and under fingernails.
- Look at the backs of your legs and feet, between your toes and the soles of your feet.
- Check the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part the hair to get a closer look.
- Examine your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
An easy and effective way of noting your findings is by downloading a body map from www.skincancer.org to track new spots or changes in existing spots. On a printed diagram of the body, you simply make marks that correspond to the marks on your skin, then draw lines out to the margin to record approximate size, color and date. Use the same map to record your findings and compare them each month.
What to look for on your skin
The following ABCDE rule is helpful in spotting potential melanomas.
A for Asymmetry: Half of the mole or mark doesn't match the other half.
B for border: Irregular, jagged, blurry or notched edges.
C for Color: Non-uniform color that includes different shades of black, brown, red, white, pink or blue patches.
D for Diameter: The growth is more than 1/4 inch in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser).
E for Evolving: The mole is growing or changing color or shape.
When in doubt about any mark on your skin that seems unusual, be cautious and have it looked at by a dermatologist. In addition to checking for skin cancer, it's also important to take preventive steps. Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent.