6 Ways to Check Yourself for Melanoma
No one knows your body better than you do. That’s why you’re in the absolute best position to keep tabs on any skin changes. This self-awareness is key for catching melanoma, a type of skin cancer that forms in the cells that control the pigment, or color, in your skin. Melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, but it’s the most dangerous, as it can spread quickly throughout the body. That’s why early detection is so important. Luckily, checking yourself is easy. Here’s everything you need to know.
Regular Self-Exams Are a Must
This applies to everyone, regardless of skin color or the amount of sunscreen you use every day. “Most melanomas are found by an individual,” says Amanda Wendel, M.D., dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, IL. “Someone usually comes to us and points out a new mole, rather than us finding it.” But you don’t have to obsessively scan yourself. “I tell patients to spend five to 10 minutes looking at your skin every couple of months,” says Susan Y. Chon, M.D., dermatologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. As for exactly what to do during that time? Read on!
Step 1: Check the Most Likely Spots
Melanoma can appear anywhere, but it’s more likely to show up in certain places, Dr. Chon says. “The most common spot for melanoma in men is the back, because they spend significant time shirtless throughout life—playing sports, swimming, mowing the lawn.” For women, it’s the backs of the legs, as women tend to wear shorter shorts or skirts and dresses that expose a good portion of their legs on warm, sunny days. To check your backside, stand with your back to a full-length mirror and hold a mirror in front of you. Or, recruit a partner or close friend.
Step 2: Look for New or Changing Moles
When you’re doing a skin self-check, you’re not looking for any old mole that you’ve had forever. Keep an eye out for any new moles or existing moles that now look a little different. “Most melanomas are brand new moles,” Dr. Wendel says. “While we want people to pay attention to moles they already have and note if one changes (more on that later), the majority of melanomas are brand new spots.” If you see something, say something—to your primary care doctor or dermatologist, if you have one.
Step 3: Know the ABCDEs of Melanoma
The acronym ABCDE can help you remember characteristics of a mole that serve as warning signs. It stands for: asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolving. “These are signs of dynamic change,” says Dr. Chon, which are always critical to note when it comes to moles. If you recognize any of the ABCDEs, even one or two, tell your dermatologist. Again, the most important thing here is if these features are new or have changed. But if you’re not sure, it’s always smart to check in with your doctor to be safe.
If you draw a line through the middle of your mole, are both sides mostly symmetrical or do they look completely different? We’re talking in terms of size, shape, and color. Most melanomas are asymmetrical, so each side will look unique.
Melanomas tend to have uneven borders, meaning the edges are scalloped, wavy, or jagged versus clean and tidy. Actively expanding or “blurry” borders are also important to look out for, Dr. Chon says.
“The majority of melanomas are anywhere from black to grayish dark brown,” Dr. Wendel says. Normal moles can vary in color, but if you see multiple colors or shades of tan, black, and brown in one single mole, it’s a sign that something may be off. Red, white, and blue may also appear in a mole that contains melanoma. It’s rare, but sometimes cancerous moles can have no pigment at all, called amelanotic melanoma. “They just look like skin-colored or pink bumps,” Dr. Chon says. While they lack pigment, they may show some of the other melanoma warning signs.
We’re talking size here. In general, it’s a warning sign of melanoma if you have a mole that is about six millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) or larger. But it’s important to keep in mind that “there can definitely be plenty of big moles that are fine and small moles that are not fine,” Dr. Wendel says. The key here is whether the size of the mole has changed.
Dr. Wendel reiterates that this is the number-one most important thing to look for. If anything from ABCD has changed, that’s important to note. But there are also other ways a mole can evolve beyond the size, shape, and color. “You want to look at any feature that might kind of tip you off to say, ‘This is not normal anymore,’” Dr. Chon says. For example, if a mole is itching, bleeding, or crusting now and never did before, something about it has changed and you should let your doctor know.
Step 4: Note Any "Ugly Ducklings"
“People tend to have a signature mole,” Dr. Chon says. For example, maybe your moles are usually light tan and flat. But then out of nowhere, you notice one really dark black mole that looks like it belongs on someone else’s body. That’s what dermatologists refer to as an “ugly duckling,” and it can be a warning sign of melanoma. Similarly, if an area of your body is free of moles and suddenly one pops up, sort of on an island by itself, that’s worth noting. “All comes back to being aware of what’s normal for you,” Dr. Chon says.
Step 5: Look Where the Sun Doesn't Shine
Yes, melanoma is most likely to grow on skin that’s exposed to the sun, but sometimes it shows up in more hidden areas that rarely see the light of day, Dr. Wendel says. “Don’t forget to look at the bottoms of your feet and your rear end,” she says. Also, check your scalp. People with short hair have more exposure there than they may realize, but even if you have long, luxurious locks, it’s still smart to search your scalp. Dr. Wendel suggests enlisting your hairdresser, who can take a look during your appointment and tell you about anything that looks new or different.
Step 6: Take Reference Photos
Put your smartphone to good use and snap a few photos of existing moles when you do your skin checks. This makes it easier to recognize what’s changed and what looks just about the same as it always has. “It’s hard to know if something changes, especially if you have a lot of moles. And if you’re looking every day, it’s kind of like watching the grass grow,” Dr. Wendel says. If you just rely on your memory, it can be difficult to discern anything substantial. Photos can make it way easier to do meaningful skin checks.
- Melanoma Facts: American Cancer Society. (2019). “What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer?” cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/what-is-melanoma.html
- ABCDEs of Melanoma: Skin Cancer Foundation. (2019). “Melanoma Warning Signs.” skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/melanoma/melanoma-warning-signs-and-images/
- Amelanotic Melanoma: Skin Cancer Foundation (2016). “Amelanotic Melanoma: It Doesn’t Look Like Other Melanomas.” skincancer.org/blog/amelanotic-melanoma-it-doesnt-look-like-other-melanomas/