In a previous post I wrote about the theory that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have been hiding the fact that he had malignant skin cancer. Dr. Steven Lomazow and Eric Fettmann co-authored a book, F.D.R.'s Deadly Secret, to share their hypothesis. In the book the authors claim that FDR’s melanoma can be seen in historical photographs. It got me to wonder if melanoma can be detected or even diagnosed from photos. In order to shed more light on this subject we have called upon the expertise of Dr. Lawrence Green, a practicing dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine.
To find out more about Dr. Green please visit his website: Aesthetics, Skin Care, and Dermasurgery.
Q: Is it possible to detect or diagnose melanoma from a photo?
Dr. Green: Unfortunately, you cannot definitively diagnose any skin cancer, melanoma or otherwise from a photo. That said, sometimes photographs can be very suggestive of skin cancer, including a melanoma. But that is as far as you can get. Currently, the only way to make sure your skin growth is benign, precancerous, or malignant is for the dermatologist to do a biopsy by taking a piece of the skin growth and sending it for microscopic analysis by a skin pathologist. In the near future, I think we will have ways of checking for skin cancer without cutting the skin. Scientists are perfecting ways to image the skin (like ultrasound) so that cancers can be distinguished from non cancers.
Q: Is photography useful making comparisons of mole growth or changes which could mean skin cancer? In other words, can photos play any useful part in documenting or keeping track of skin changes?
Dr. Green: Yes, photographs can be very helpful in checking moles for changes that can lead to precancerous moles or melanoma. Many dermatologists (including myself), routinely use photographs to check if a mole is changing. When someone comes into the office, an old photograph taken from a previous visit is compared to the mole as it looks like currently.
Q: What are the warning signs of melanoma? Is it easy to distinguish between a benign mole and a melanoma visually?
Dr. Green: Watching for the warning signs of melanoma are sometimes called the ABCDE’s. You look for a mole that is Asymmetric, has Borders that are changing, Colors that are changing or different within the same mole, Diameters that are enlarging, and is Evolving (another way of emphasizing the importance of watching for any mole that is changing). Sometimes it is easy to diagnose a benign mole just by looking at it, but sometimes it is not so obvious. In those instances, having your dermatologist watch it closely and taking a photograph or just biopsying it, would be the best choice to make.
Thank you Dr. Green
In summary: It is not possible to diagnose melanoma or any other type of skin cancer through photos. If you have a suspicious mole or skin growth nobody can diagnose you over the Internet with a photograph. You will have to be seen by a doctor, preferably a dermatologist, who can get a biopsy of the affected skin area. However, photos may be a useful tool in monitoring skin changes over time. If you are someone who is more at risk for skin cancer (fair skin, light hair, a personal or family history of skin cancer, and multiple moles) you may wish to take photos of your skin periodically to show your dermatologist.