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9 Ways to Spot Skin Cancer Before It Kills

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 6/02/2019 Elaine K. Howley
Dermatologist examines a mole: If you develop a new spot or mole on the skin, tell your doctor. © (Getty Images) If you develop a new spot or mole on the skin, tell your doctor.

The American Cancer Society reports that “skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer,” but it’s also one of the more survivable ones, in large part because it’s often detected in the earliest, most treatable stages. When skin cancer is spotted early, it’s almost always curable.

Skin cancers can be divided into two primary groups: melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers, which can be further divided into basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

According to thew Skin Cancer Foundation, “more than 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer were treated in over 3.3 million people in the U.S. in 2012, the most recent year new statistics were available.” This figure is higher than all other cancers combined. Nonmelanoma skin cancers tend to be caught early and are highly treatable, usually by a simple surgical excision. It’s quite rare for squamous cell carcinoma to metastasize, or spread, and even less likely for basal cell carcinoma. But it’s difficult to pinpoint specific survival rates for NMSC because these cases are not required to be reported to cancer registries.

For melanoma, which is a more aggressive and dangerous type of cancer that is more likely to spread, we have more information. The ACS reports that “the five-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 92 percent. Eighty-four percent of cases are diagnosed at a localized stage, for which the five-year survival rate is 98 percent.” However, that figure dips to just 23 percent for cancers that have already spread to distant sites. (A distant metastasis is defined as a cancer that has spread to parts of the body not adjacent to the original cancer site.)

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No matter which type of skin cancer you may develop, the key to surviving it is early detection.

1. Know your skin. First and foremost, it’s important to know your skin and what’s normal for you. Depending on your genetics and your level of sun exposure (UV radiation from the sun plays an important role in the development of most cases of skin cancer), you may be more likely to develop moles and other spots on the skin over time, which may lead to skin cancers.

Dr. Marc Glashofer, a board-certified dermatologist, skin cancer expert and a fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon practicing in Northern New Jersey, says “you want to get a sense of how you grow your spots. We will all develop new lesions as we mature. That’s just what happens. But you want to look and ask, are the new ones you’re getting different from the ones you previously had? Are they a different color, shape or appearance? If you grow your moles all in a regular oval or round shape and they’re all tan or brown and flat, then all the sudden you get a raised black spot with notched borders, well then that’s different. That’s an ‘ugly duckling’ and that should be evaluated.”

2. Look for new spots. If you develop a new spot or mole on the skin, tell your doctor. “Any type of change should be evaluated,” Glashofer says. Many dermatologists urge people to look for the ABCDEs of melanoma and report anything new or different. Focus on the following during skin checks:

  • A: Asymmetry. An asymmetrical mole or spot should be evaluated.
  • B: Border. If your mole or spot has a jagged, notched or irregular border, that should be evaluated.
  • C: Color. Uneven color could be a sign of skin cancer.
  • D: Diameter. Bigger moles and spots are of greater concern than smaller ones and should be evaluated.
  • E: Evolving. If your questionable mole or spot has changed recently, talk to your doctor.

3. Monitor your moles for changes. “A spot that’s behaving differently or has symptoms, such as a spot that’s bleeding, that’s itchy, painful or irritated, especially if it’s continuing to grow, that should be evaluated,” Glashofer says. While the ABCDE method applies specifically to melanoma, basal and squamous cell carcinomas are particularly susceptible to changing, too, so keep an eye on all your spots and note if any of them change.

4. Know where you’re more likely to develop a skin cancer. Men, watch your back; women, check your legs.It's more common for men to get melanomas on their backs and trunks, while women tend to get them on their legs and calves, because those areas are more likely to receive more sunlight. Likewise, men should keep a close watch on the tops of ears, because many hats don’t shade the ears. If your hair is thinning, your scalp is less protected from the damaging rays of the sun, so the top of your head can be a problematic spot, too.

5. Don't overlook the places where the sun doesn’t shine. All that said, you can develop a skin cancer on any part of the skin. Many melanomas show up in armpits, on the hands, near the belly button, underneath hair, on the bottom of the feet, in folds of skin and in other places that don't get much direct light, which is why it’s important to know your skin and check it regularly.

6. If you’re at higher risk, be more vigilant. Some people are at higher risk of developing skin cancer. This can be related to genetics or other disease states. For example, people with a family history of skin cancer, those with HIV/AIDs and those who are taking immunosuppressant drugs because they have undergone an organ transplant or have an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis are at higher risk for developing skin cancer. Those with light skin, fair hair and blue or green eyes tend to be at higher risk than people with darker skin, hair and eye color.

7. Ask for help. If you’re having trouble seeing part of your skin, ask a loved one for assistance. Tell them to have a look at the parts that you can’t see, or use a mirror to get a glimpse of tough-to-monitor locations.

8. See your dermatologist regularly. Although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not currently find enough evidence to recommend routine screening for everyone for skin cancer, many doctors still recommend that patients get an annual skin check. This is a thorough visual check of the skin conducted by a dermatologist or your primary care provider to look for any unusual moles, spots, lesions or sores on the skin that could be indicative of skin cancer. Glashofer recommends making this appointment with a “board-certified dermatologist,” as this specialist “can diagnose and treat these efficiently and effectively.”

9. Prevent it before it starts. “Prevention is still the best medicine, so avoiding sunburns and excess sun damage doesn’t mean you can’t be outside. Just be smart and protect your skin,” says Dr. Mark Faries, co-director of the melanoma program and head of surgical oncology at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute, an affiliate of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. This can save your life as well as a lot of money. “When melanoma is detected early, a simple surgical procedure cures it almost every time. The same is true for basal and squamous cell carcinomas. The smaller they are, the easier that surgery is, so getting in to a dermatologist to get checked regularly is incredibly cost effective.”

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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