Skin Cancer Screenings: Questions and Answers

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

Each month on Health Central's Skin Cancer site, we select a member question or topic to explore with our consulting dermatologist, Dr. Lawrence Green, a practicing dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine. This month we are going to be talking about skin cancer screenings and how you can get one even when you lack insurance.

Q: Some of our members want to know about free skin cancer screenings. Would you have any information on this? For those lacking insurance how can they get a skin screening?** Dr. Green:** Free skin cancer screenings are done in various localities, often organized by dermatology organizations (like the American Academy of Dermatology) or local hospitals (usually in conjunction with other cancer screenings). For example, last weekend I went to my local hospital for a few hours for their "annual free cancer screening day." Everyone who came was given various free cancer screenings, and skin cancer screening was one of them. I also know the American Academy of Dermatology in conjunction with Major League Baseball has free skin cancers screenings for fans once a year in several baseball stadiums throughout the country. It's best to contact your local hospital or the American Academy of Dermatology to find out when and where one is near year.

Q: Why is it important to get an annual skin screening?** Dr. Green:** If you have a history of a lot of sun exposure (tans or burns), have used tanning salons, a history of abnormal moles, pre-cancers or skin cancers, or a family history of melanoma cancer-you should probably have an at least an annual screening. Also, if you have any skin growth or mole that has recently changed in size, shape, or color you should get that checked.

Q: Is a general practitioner qualified to do a skin screening or should it ultimately be done by a dermatologist?** Dr. Green:** Dermatologists are exclusively trained for and perform detailed skin cancer screenings multiple times every day of their careers. General practitioners also can look at the skin (they are not trained in the details of skin cancer examinations), but they need to look at everything else going on with your health as well. I know I am biased, but if you really want to concentrate on your skin, go to the person who only concentrates on your skin health.

Q: How long does a skin check take?** Dr. Green:** The length of a skin exam depends on how much there is to look at. For example, someone with few moles and no history of sun burns or tanning will probably have a quicker exam than someone who has a history of skin cancer, many moles, and has been to tanning salons a lot. So a skin cancer check can take anywhere from 10-40 minutes.

Q: What is involved in a skin screening and does it hurt?** Dr. Green:** During a skin cancer screening, the dermatologist tries to examine every part of your skin for abnormal growths. Some dermatologists use magnifying lights or head gear to examine your skin (especially if they have bad far sighted vision) and some dermatologists use a magnifying apparatus called dermascopy to check out suspicious moles. I personally like to take high resolution photographs of suspicious moles, so that when someone comes back for their next exam I can easily see if it has changed. None of this hurts, and no one way works best. As long as you feel all of your skin is checked is what matters

Q: Are there situations where a patient should get their skin checked more than once a year?** Dr. Green:** Yes, people with a history of skin cancer, abnormal moles, or just a lot of moles often need more than one skin exam a year to make sure thing are okay.

Thank you Dr. Green for answering our questions!

For more information on skin cancer prevention please refer to the following Health Central article on free skin cancer screenings.

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."