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Here’s the Best Way to Spot Signs of Skin Cancer

Keeping a close eye on your skin and moles is the most important step toward finding skin cancer early, when it’s most treatable. “You are your own first line of defense when it comes to finding skin cancer,” said Mark Gimbel, MD, a surgical oncologist specializing in melanoma at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

You should be aware of your moles and spots on your skin, so you notice if anything changes. And every couple of months, you should thoroughly examine your skin from head to toe. Anyone can get skin cancer—no matter their skin color.

“Check everywhere because skin cancer can also develop in places that do not get sun exposure,” Dr. Gimbel said. Use a mirror to help you see your back, buttocks, genitals and the soles of your feet, and ask a family member to help check your scalp. Also, pay attention to rough or raised areas on your scalp or skin when you shampoo or apply lotion. Suspicious spots or unusual moles could be a sign of skin cancer.

“If you notice anything that concerns you, follow up with a dermatologist. Don’t be shy about pointing it out—dermatologists appreciate it when you bring something to their attention,” Dr. Gimbel said. He recommends taking a photo of a suspicious spot or mole with your phone. That way, you can see your dermatologist right away and share the photos, and then refer back to it later to see if anything is changing.

Here's what to watch for when you check your skin for suspicious spots

As you examine your skin, you want to look for:

  • Small, smooth, shiny pale or waxy lumps
  • Firm red lumps that may bleed or develop a crust
  • Flat red spots that are rough, dry or scaly
  • New spots or spots that change
  • Sores that don’t heal, or heal and then return
  • Spots or sores that change in sensation or are itchy, tender or painful
  • Spots that reappear after they’ve been treated with freezing or burning

Here’s how to examine your moles using the ABCs

Skin cancer often develops in moles, so pay extra attention to them when you evaluate your skin. Look for:

  • Asymmetry: The two sides look different from each other
  • Border: The border is crooked, jagged or irregular
  • Color: The mole is multicolored
  • Diameter: The mole is more than six millimeters across, or about the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolution: The mole has changed in size, shape or feeling

Many suspicious spots aren’t cancerous. But if you are diagnosed with skin cancer, it will likely be one of these three types:

  • Basal cell carcinoma: A slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: A type of skin cancer that’s more likely to spread than basal cell, but less common
  • Melanoma: The most aggressive form of skin cancer, but only responsible for 2% of cases

Most skin cancers are highly treatable, but once you get skin cancer, you’re at higher risk of getting it again. Ultraviolet exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, so stay out of the sun when it’s strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher (reapplied every two hours), wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that blog UV rays and don’t use tanning beds. You’re also at higher risk of skin cancer if you have a suppressed immune system or have nonhealing wounds.

The bottom line

It’s crucial to examine your skin regularly to check for signs of skin cancer, especially if you have fair skin, a large number of moles or a history of skin cancer. To connect with a dermatologist who can help evaluate and monitor your skin, reach out to Banner Health.

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