More Than A Mole

How to patrol your skin for deadly growths

Medically reviewed in April 2020

Are you keeping an eye on your skin? Research shows that people who regularly check themselves for suspicious skin changes are 44% less likely to die from melanoma than those who do not check. In fact, one study found that nearly three quarters of all incident melanomas were discovered by self-examination or by family members. Because melanoma becomes more dangerous the thicker it grows above and below the skin’s surface, early detection of melanoma is essential to survival.

Nearly half of all Americans who live to age 65 will develop skin cancer at least once.

Skin cancer is highly curable as long as it is detected in the early stages of the disease. But if it goes undetected and untreated, it can be horribly disfiguring and even life threatening. Melanoma is the leading cause of death due to malignancy among women between the ages of 20 and 30.

Skin Cancer Types

Skin cancer starts in the epidermis -- the part of the skin you can see. So the warning signs are easy to spot.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Description: This nonmelanoma skin cancer originates in the bottom layer of the epidermis (the basal layer). These tumors are slow-growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Basal cell carcinoma is considered a less deadly form of skin cancer than squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. However, inadequately treated tumors can cause considerable damage and deformity over time.

Incidence: Approximately 75% of all skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas. There is a 95% cure rate when the cancer is properly treated. It is the most common type of skin cancer.

Appearance: It often appears as a flat, scaly growth that is red, pink, or white; or as a small, raised bump that is shiny or waxy. It may also have a crusty texture or involve an open sore that has not healed or heals temporarily. Most tumors arise on the sun-damaged skin of the head and neck.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Description: This nonmelanoma skin cancer originates in the upper part of the epidermis. These tumors are more likely than basal cell carcinomas to spread to tissues beneath the skin, and unlike basal cell carcinomas, they can metastasize (spread to other parts of the body). However, it is rare for these carcinomas to spread to other organs of the body.

Incidence: Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for approximately 20% of all skin cancers and results in approximately 2,300 deaths each year. However, when properly treated, squamous cell carcinomas have a 95% cure rate. It is the second most common type of skin cancer.

Appearance: It may appear as a lump that grows and has a rough surface or as a flat, reddish patch that grows slowly and is scaly. It is found mainly on areas of the skin that are often exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, neck, hands, and arms.

Malignant Melanoma

Description: By far the deadliest form of skin cancer, it begins in the melanocytes, the cells of the skin responsible for producing pigment (melanin). Because malignant melanomas have a tendency to spread, treatment is essential.

Incidence: Although this is the rarest form of skin cancer, malignant melanomas are on the rise. In 2004, about 55,100 persons in the United States are expected to develop melanoma and approximately 7,910 will die of it. If treated in the early stages, melanoma is highly curable.

Appearance: It can appear without warning, but may develop from or near a mole. Early melanoma can look like an irregular, inflamed, or flat spreading mole. One way to remember the signs and symptoms of this type of cancer is to remember "ABCDE":

  • Asymmetry -- One half of the mole doesn't match the other half.
  • Border -- The edges of the mole are ragged.
  • Color -- The pigmentation is not uniform and may spread into the surrounding skin.
  • Diameter -- The mole's diameter is more than 6 millimeters (larger than the size of a pencil eraser).
  • Elevation -- The mole is raised above the skin and has an uneven surface.

Any one, or all, of these traits may indicate malignant melanoma.

Patrol Your Skin in 6 Easy Steps

Now that you have a better idea of what to look for and what's at stake, it's time to patrol your skin for potentially cancerous lesions. Getting to know what's normal for you is the best place to begin. The better you know your skin, the more likely you'll be able to notice if there are any changes. Learn where your birthmarks, freckles, moles, and blemishes are and what they usually look and feel like.

The goal of a skin self-exam is to look thoroughly at all areas of your body, so you'll need a well-lit room with a full-length mirror and a hand mirror and a blow dryer. The bathroom is generally an ideal location. In addition, it may be easier to do your skin exam with a partner, if you wish.

  1. Look at the front and back of your body in a mirror.
  2. Look at your left and right sides. Raise your arms and bend your elbows.
  3. Look at your underarms, forearms, the backs of your upper arms, and your palms.
  4. Sit down and look at the back of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet. (Think about the times your soles may have been sunburned as you lay on your stomach.)
  5. Use a mirror to examine the back of your neck and scalp. Use a blow dryer on a low setting to examine your entire scalp.
  6. Use a hand mirror to examine your back and your buttocks.
  7. Finally, take photographs of any suspicious-looking skin marks. Save these pictures; during your next skin exam, check your skin for any changes against the photos you took.

Change Can Be Bad

Changes in existing moles or blemishes, especially enlargement of lesions, may indicate cancerous cells. If you find changes when you are examining your skin and taking photographs, speak with your doctor or dermatologist. Not all skin cancers look the same, and changes in the skin are not sure signs of cancer. However, key symptoms of all three of the major skin cancers, include:

  • The development of any new colored growth
  • A spot or bump that has been getting larger or has changed texture or color
  • A sore that has not healed within 3 months

Skin cancer can appear on any part of the body; however, the disease is typically found on areas that are most often exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, hands, and arms. Men and women are likely to have melanomas on different parts of their body. Men should pay special attention to their trunks, whereas women should pay special attention to their lower limbs.

Appointment with Your Mirror

Although skin cancer is about three times more common in men than in women, studies show that men are much less likely to perform regular skin self-examinations.

It's important that you schedule a regular time to examine your skin. This may be as often as once a month. It's also useful to record the dates of your skin exams and the dates that you took photos of existing moles or blemishes.

Another way to detect skin cancer is to have a professional examination. Be sure to inform your doctor if you have one or more risk factors for developing skin cancer, so that he or she may conduct a total-body skin exam.

What Else Could It Be?

Sometimes it's hard to tell cancerous skin conditions from noncancerous ones. The skin conditions below are noncancerous, but a doctor's expert eye is needed for diagnosis:

  • Actinic keratosis: Thick, rough, scaly patches of skin that are red or brown in color
  • Cherry angiomas: Small, smooth, noncancerous skin growths that appear as a cherry-red bump
  • Seborrheic ceratoses: Benign lesions that vary in color from light tan to black -- often found on the chest or back
  • Sebaceous hyperplasia: Common, benign, round, flesh-colored or yellow lesions, usually found on the face

Skin cancer is more common than any other cancer, and the annual rates of all forms of skin cancer are increasing each year. However, unlike almost any other type of cancer, all forms are easily detectable and curable in early stages. The catch is that you need to learn how to spot the early stages of the disease and make a habit of regularly looking for them.

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