Screening Tips for Finding Skin Cancer Early

Medically Reviewed By: Catherine Pisano, MD

Catching skin cancer early will often lead to a better prognosis for patients and can mean avoiding extensive surgeries or other treatments depending on the cancer. 

To do so, physicians recommend: 

  • Regular monthly self-examinations of your skin, which will allow you to track changes in your skin and alert a physician about any concerns. 
  • A yearly annual evaluation by a dermatologist if you have many moles (more than 50), atypical moles, a family history of melanoma, a personal history of skin cancer, are immunosuppressed, or have other risk factors. 

How do I perform a self-exam for skin cancer? 

Experts recommend monthly self-exams begin at age 18. To conduct a self-exam, use the acronym ABCDE (asymmetry, border, color, diameter/ugly duckling, evolution) to evaluate if a mole on your body could be something more serious. If any spots seem unusual, consult your doctor as soon as possible. 

  • A – Asymmetry: When one half of the lesion is unlike the other. 
  • B – Border: When the lesion has an irregular, scalloped (a series of curves), or poorly defined border. 
  • C – Color: If the color of the lesion varies from one area to the next or has several different colors (tan, brown, black, white, red, or purple). 
  • D – Diameter/Ugly Duckling: Melanomas are usually bigger than 6mm (about the width of a pencil eraser) but can be smaller if diagnosed early. If the diameter of a lesion is increasing rapidly, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible. The “ugly duckling” rule, meaning one mole on your body looks very different from all the others, is another reason to consult your doctor. 
  • E – Evolving: When the lesion changes in size, shape, color, or becomes symptomatic. 

Regular checks are an effective way to get to know your skin and identify any changes in it, one of the first things a dermatologist will want to be alerted about.  

If you have darker skin, pay special attention to your hands and feet where melanoma is more common for patients with darker skin tones. Consult with a physician if you see a finger or toenail changing color, or a concerning lesion on your hands or feet. 

How do I know if I should be concerned about skin cancer? 

If you have many moles (more than 50), atypical moles, or a family history of melanoma, a personal history of skin cancer, or are immunosuppressed, you should have an annual evaluation by a dermatologist. Other risk factors include: 

  • A family history of other types of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma) 
  • A personal history of excessive sun exposure with frequent sun burns 
  • Tanning bed usage 
  • Having fair skin that burns easily 
  • A tendency to freckle 
  • Being a white man older than 65 (this is a population of people who frequently have advanced melanomas at the time of diagnosis) 

Anyone can develop skin cancer regardless of skin type or age. Even people who aren’t at particularly high risk of skin cancer should perform regular skin checks  

If you are at an elevated risk, you should ask your primary care physicians about skin exams. These are not usually part of a routine physical exam. Individuals concerned about melanoma or other skin cancers should ask their primary care physicians to refer them to a dermatologist.  

Sun safety tips 

It is important to keep yourself protected from the sun. To maintain healthy skin, limit sun exposure and use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, reapplying every two hours, or wear protective clothing. 

Leave a Comment