How to Check Your Skin for Skin Cancer

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

The American Academy of Dermatology has designated May as Melanoma/ Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53,919 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin in 2006, and 8,441 people died from it. The sad thing about these numbers is that skin cancer is preventable. Detection of skin cancer is also critical. The cure rate for melanoma is estimated at 95% if caught early.

The bottom line is that you don't have to die of skin cancer.

We hope that the information provided here may save a life. Please take an active part in the prevention of skin cancer by telling the people you know including friends, family and loved ones about skin cancer prevention and detection.

In this post we are going to discuss how to perform a self examination for skin cancers with a focus upon Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you do a self skin care examination monthly. If you are a woman you can do your skin check at the same time you examine your breasts for breast cancer so you can remember easily.

When you get out of the shower you will start with your scalp and work your way down. If possible, it is good to have a partner to help you.

  1. Thoroughly check your scalp by looking into a mirror and repeatedly parting your hair into sections to look for any suspicious moles, growths or lesions.

  2. Next, you will do your facial area including the mouth, lips, nose, and ears. Be sure to check the back of the earlobes.

  3. Take a look at both of your hands front and back, in between your fingers, and underneath the fingernails.

  4. Next, scan your wrists, arms and elbows. Also take care to check under your arms.

  5. Examine the front of your neck and trunk and your chest. Women should also check under their breasts.

  6. The next step requires you to use a hand held mirror while standing in front of a full length mirror. Scan the back of your neck and shoulders and also your back. Move down to your buttocks and the backs of your legs.

  7. Check the front and sides of your legs and then sit down to examine your ankles, heels, the top and sole of each foot as well as toes. Make sure to check in between your toes and under your toenails.

  8. While you are sitting you can then check your genitals using a handheld mirror.

What exactly are you looking for when you perform a self skin exam?

The American Cancer Society provides an easy mnemonic to remember how to check for melanomas. It is sometimes referred to as an "ABCDE" guide.

  • A stands for Asymmetry: If you were to divide up a healthy mole into two halves, both sides would match up in shape and size. With asymmetrical moles, the two halves do not match each other.

  • B is for Irregular Borders. The colors may seem to bleed outside of the borders which may be uneven or blurred.

  • C is for Uneven Color. Instead of one shade of color, there may be multiple colors present such as brown, tan and black. If a mole becomes a lot darker you should also get it checked out.

  • D is for Diameter. If your mole is larger than 6 millimeters you may want to get your mole looked at by a doctor. Most of the literature states that anything larger than a pencil eraser should be checked out.

  • E is for Evolving. Any mole, lesion or growth which changes over time should be examined by a doctor or dermatologist.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you wish to see comparison images of normal moles as compared with atypical mole please visit this photo page created by The National Cancer Institute.

Here are some additional things you need to know about detecting skin cancer:

  • In Caucasians, melanomas often develop on the trunk and legs, but in African Americans, melanomas are most often found under the nails, on the palms of hands, and on the soles of the feet.

  • One suggestion given by my dermatologist is to take photos of my moles and put a date of when the photo was taken. That way any changes can be detected more easily.

  • In addition to a self skin check you also want to make an annual appointment with a dermatologist. General practitioners can also check for skin cancers but they may not be as thorough as a dermatologist. In a 2004 report in Dermatology entitled, "Three Point Check List of Dermoscopy. A new screening method for early detection of melanoma" the author suggests that GP's "get it right" only 60% of the time, meaning that they sometimes have difficulty with identifying pre-cancerous or cancerous skin growths and moles.

  • Any mole, or unexplained sore, or lesion that doesn't heal, is itchy, tender, bleeds or feels painful should also be reported to your doctor.

My motto is, "When in doubt, get it checked out." If you are not sure about whether or not a mole or lesion looks like skin cancer, let your doctor or dermatologist take a look. That is what they have been trained to do. Instead of worrying, get some peace of mind. If it is nothing serious, great. But if it does end of being skin cancer, then it is highly probable that you are catching it in time so that you can be treated and

Here are some additional resources from Health Central about melanoma and skin cancer prevention:

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."