We know melanoma to be the most deadly type of skin cancer. In 2009 The National Cancer Institute reported that melanoma killed approximately 8,650 Americans. This number is especially tragic considering that skin cancer is both preventable and treatable. The key to successful treatment, however, is to catch melanoma early on before the cancer has had a chance to spread to internal organs. The cure rate for melanoma is estimated at 95% if caught at a less advanced stage.
The following are five ways to identify melanomas early on before they have a chance to do great harm.
1. Know the warning signs.
Skin cancer experts have added an "E" to their A-B-C-D criteria for detecting cancerous lesions and moles. The American Academy of Dermatology has issued these guidelines for looking for danger signs in pigmented lesions of the skin:
A is for Asymmetry. If the two halves of the mole do not match up this may be a warning sign.
B is for Borders. If the edges of the mole are irregular or scalloped this may indicate a suspicious lesion.
C is for Color. If your mole or lesion has different shades of colors blending into one another including brown, black or tan this may also be a warning sign for melanoma.
D is for Diameter. If your growth or mole is greater than 6 mm or the size of a standard pencil eraser this may indicate a suspicious mole.
E is for Evolving. If your mole or lesion is changing in size, shape, and/or color you will want to have a dermatologist look at it.
For more information about identifying the early warning signs of melanoma please refer to our article entitled, "I Have a Strange Looking Mole-Is it Skin Cancer?"
2. Do a self skin exam.
Now that you know what to look for with regard to any suspicious moles or lesions, it is important that you do a full body skin exam. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you do a self skin examination once a month. If you are female you can do your skin check at the same time you examine your breasts for breast cancer so you can remember easily. A self skin exam takes no more than ten minutes and is relatively easy to do. A hand held mirror is essential for your self skin exam and it also may be beneficial to have a partner to examine any areas difficult for you to see on your own.
For step by step instructions of how to perform a self skin exam please refer to our guide entitled, "How to Check Your Skin for Skin Cancer."
3. Record your findings.
The American Academy of Dermatology has a printable pdf file (http://www.melanomamonday.org/documents/Body_Mole_Map_11-09.pdf) for recording any suspicious moles and their location. Their Body Mole Map has a picture of the front and back of the body, the front and sides of the face, top of the head, and the bottoms of the feet for you to indicate where you have found an irregular mole or growth. Such a record can be of great benefit to your doctor in detecting moles which may need further examination.
4. Schedule a regular annual skin exam by a dermatologist.
In addition to performing a monthly self skin exam it is extremely important that you also be seen by a dermatologist for a yearly full body skin examination. The exam is easy, non-painful, and takes very little time. Yet this exam could be the thing to save your life. In a previous article I wrote about how dermatologists detect the most melanomas. Dermatologists are trained to identify even the thinnest of skin cancers that patients usually do not find on their own.
Having your skin checked by your regular general practitioner cannot replace the full body skin exam given by a dermatologist. Many GPs will miss skin cancers that dermatologists will detect and quite often do not perform a full body scan for melanomas or other skin cancers.
For more information about dermatologists and the importance of an annual skin check up please read, "How a Visit to a Dermatologist Can Save Your Life."
5. Full Body Mole Photography.
Total body photography is one tool some dermatologists may use with patients who have a high risk for developing melanoma. Some of these risks include having a personal or family history of melanoma, having atypical mole syndrome or having numerous moles of varied sizes, shapes, and colors. Photographs can provide an excellent record of how your moles or skin lesions change over time.
To read more about total body mole photography please refer to this Science Daily article entitled, "Dermatologists Can Diagnose and Treat Early Stage Melanomas Using New Technology."
It truly pays to be an informed patient as it can save your life. Nobody needs to die of skin cancer. With early detection your chance for survival is very high. You and your doctor will work as a team to prevent and detect skin cancer before it becomes a serious problem.
If you have or have had melanoma please share your story with us. How did you discover your skin cancer? Your story just may help someone who is going through the same thing.