Are you sure that that mole isn’t melanoma? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one in 50 Americans will develop the life-threatening type of skin cancer, melanoma. While you can take steps to reduce the risk of skin cancer by avoiding excessive ultraviolet light exposure form the sun and tanning beds, early detection is critical to minimize the damage of skin cancer.
Most forms of skin cancer, even melanoma, are almost 100 percent curable if caught in the earliest stages of growth. That is why I routinely talk to patients about performing monthly self-skin exams. If a patient notices a growth that has been changing in size, shape, or color, I’ll want to see it right away to evaluate for cancerous changes.
So, how do you do a proper skin exam? Once a month, either getting into or out of the shower, spend a few minutes looking at your entire skin’s surface. A thorough skin exam does not have to take very long, but it require a long mirror and a hand-held mirror to really see everything.
It’s not practical or realistic to spend hours examining every growth on the skin. However, a good skin “look over” when performed on a regular basis will help you learn the pattern of all the moles, spots, lumps and bumps. The brain is very good at recognizing patterns and after a few monthly skin exams, should learn the general pattern of growths on the skin. If a new growth emerges, or an old growth becomes larger, people performing regular self-skin exams are more likely to notice the change to alert their dermatologist sooner.
Performing regular self-skin examinations are an easy way to take ownership of your skin health. I see men and women in the office all the time who notice a new little spot that “just doesn’t seem right, Doc.” In some cases, these growths were determined to be a very early melanoma. Early melanoma has a 99 percent cure rate, however, if allowed to spread, could have devastating consequences. So get out the mirror, and get to know your own skin.
Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi is Founder and Director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the George Washington Medical Center.