Patients need to take an active role in protecting their skin from skin cancer and identifying any concerning spots. Skin exams performed at home are great ways to understand skin and become aware of normal mole patterns, freckles and other blemishes to better identify concerning spots. Exams performed by a professional at least once a year and by the patient at least once a month can help identify skin cancer early, increasing the survival rates significantly.
Regular skin exams are especially important if the patient is at a higher risk of skin cancer– people with reduced immunity response, those with very fair skin, patients with a history of skin cancer or a familial history of skin cancer. There are step-by-step guidelines in place from the American Cancer Society that patients should follow concerning skin exams, but it’s best to speak with a dermatologist about any concerns for a personalized skin care plan.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a head-to-toe self examination every month to spot and new or changing lesions that might be cancerous or precancerous. Skin cancers are almost always curable when found early and removed.
Performing a skin exam is easy. The tools needed are:
- Bright lights
- A full-length mirror
- A hand mirror
- Two chairs or stools
- A hair dryer or comb
- Body maps (optional)
- And a pencil (optional)
What to Look For
A skin exam done by a professional may be helpful for some patients to get a baseline off any existing spots and if they are cancerous or precancerous.
Skin cancer can show up in many forms so it’s important that patients know what they are searching for.
In areas most often exposed to the sun, it’s common to find basal cell and squamous cell cancers. The head, neck and arms are the most commonly affected area and should be checked for new growths, spots, bumps, patches or sores that don’t heal even after several weeks. Some cancerous or precancerous spots can look like a shaving cut that refuses to heal and bleeds easily.
Basal cell carcinomas can appear in several different ways. They could be flat, firm, pale in color and look similar to a scar. Others can be raised red patches that may be itchy. Small, pink or red, shiny or pearly bumps with blue, black and brown areas may also be a sign of basal cell carcinoma. Pink growths with almost a valley-like appearance (raised edges with a lower center) with abnormal blood vessels spreading out from them should also be cause for concern. Open sores, some with oozing or crusted areas, that don’t heal are also a sign of basal cell carcinomas.
Squamous cell carcinomas also have some distinct signs. Rough, scaly red patches that may crust or bleed are a possible sign of squamous cell cancer. Raised lumps, with a valley-like appearance or wart like growths should also be noted during a professional and at-home skin exam.
Both of these types of skin cancer have the ability to develop as flat areas with only a slight difference from the surrounding skin.
Another skin concern to be aware of is actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis. This is a skin condition that, if left unchecked, can sometimes progress to squamous cell skin cancer. While most do not, it’s important to note any spots that may be actinic keratosis on a body map just in case. These lesions are caused by too much sun exposure and are usually small, rough or scaly, that are pink or flesh colored. Usually, they will start on the face, ears, back of the hands or arms and, if a patient has one, they are more likely to develop more.
Melanoma, the most dangerous of all skin cancers, should also be checked for. Patients should look at their moles to determine if a spot has turned into melanoma. Normal moles will be evenly brown, tan or black and consistent in shape and size.
Follow the ABCDE rule when checking moles.
Skin Exam Step 1: Facing the Mirror
Looking into the full-length mirror, patients should check their face, ears, neck, chest and belly. Women will need to life their breasts to check the skin underneath. While it may not seem possible to get skin cancer here as this area is not typically exposed to the sun, it can happen and patients should check just to be safe.
Skin Exam Step 2: Check Underarms
While still facing the mirror, patients should check their underarm area and the fronts and backs of their arms. Then, check tops and palms of the hands, between fingers and around the nails.
Skin Exam Step 3: Sitting Down
After sitting down on a chair or stool, patients should check their thighs, shins and top of the feet, Once these areas are cleared, check between the toes and around the toenails.
Skin Exam Step 4: Using the Hand Mirror
Continuing to sit, patients should use the hand mirror to look at the bottoms of their feet, calve area and back of thighs. Start with one leg, complete all the areas, then move on to the next leg.
Skin Exam Step 5: Stand with the Hand Mirror
Some patients may feel awkward during this step but it’s important to check these next areas. With the hand mirror, patients should check their buttocks, lifting as needed, the genital area, both lower and upper back and the back of their neck and ears– keeping in mind the area behind the lobe in front of the hair.
Skin Exam Step 6: Checking the Scalp
Patients should use a comb or a hair dryer to move the hair and check the scalp for any concerning areas. Section the hair as needed.
How to Use a Body Map
Body maps can be used to keep track of any spots on the body noticed by the patient. While not required to perform a self exam, it is highly recommended to keep a log. This will allow the dermatologist or other health care professional greater insight into the change over time happening to the skin.
On the first self exam, mark a dot on the map in the approximate area any spots or lesions are noticed. Lesions can (and should) include:
- Or Scaly Patches
After the mark has been catalogued, patients should draw a line out to the margin and indicate the approximate size, color and location as well as the date noticed. For each subsequent exam, patients should find that spot on their skin that corresponds to each dot. Record any new information with the date. Patients should also record any new spots they have found.
A body map published by the Skin Cancer Foundation can be downloaded here.
The easiest time to do a simple monthly self examination is after a bath or shower. If a patient looks at their skin regularly, they’ll know what’s normal for their skin and what’s not, allowing their dermatologist to have better insight into any skin concerns.
When it comes to your skin, you only want the best.
That’s why you should choose Southern Dermatology. We offer the best products, with the best ingredients. Our experienced practitioners strive to provide the best and safest experience for all patients. Call Southern Dermatology today at 919-782-2152 to schedule a consult.