How to Persuade a Loved One to Get a Skin Check

by Krista Bennett DeMaio Health Writer

Real friends tell friends when they have something in their teeth, a booger in their nose, or a mole that doesn’t look quite right, right?!? All can be awkward conversations, but that last one can save a life, so it’s one worth having. When caught early, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has a cure rate of 98%. Yet, we all have family and friends who still haven’t had a skin exam. Here, top dermatologists share the most common excuses you’re likely to hear, along with spot-on advice to get your loved ones in the office.

examining moles
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“It’s intimidating!”

We get it. You’re naked (beneath your robe) while a doctor scans every inch of you under a light. What if she finds something? “For a lot of people, it’s the fear of the unknown,” says Tiffany Libby, M.D., director of Mohs micrographic and dermatologic surgery at Brown University in Providence, RI, who says it helps to know what to expect before you arrive. “Yes, you’re expected to undress. Only if we find something, we’ll take a biopsy, [removing] a very small piece of skin,” she says. If so, you’ll get results in about a week.

Doctor examining a mole.
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“Skin cancer is no big deal.”

Skin cancer, the most common of all cancers, is highly treatable and curable when detected early, but when left to its own devices, it can spread quickly and turn deadly. If you have a friend or relative who seems cavalier about its severity, it’s time to hit them with some sobering stats: Two people will die every hour of non-melanoma skin cancers; one person every hour dies of melanoma,” says Orit Markowitz, M.D., director of pigmented lesions and skin cancers in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Doctors in New York City, We’d say that’s a pretty big deal.

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“I’ll go at some point.”

We’re all busy. It’s easy to push preventative screenings to the back burner, but putting off a skin check can literally be a matter of life and death, says Dr. Markowitz. Diagnosing skin cancer in its earliest stages is crucial for a good prognosis. “You want to catch it early,” says Dr. Markowitz. “A melanoma that’s deeper than just one millimeter can lead to a drop in survival rate percentages.” The takeaway: This is one appointment worth making time for.

Senior man smiling.
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Excuse: It can’t be skin cancer; I don’t have fair skin.

We know that genetics play a strong role in melanoma. One in every 10 melanoma patients have a relative who’s had the disease, too, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. But you can definitely be the first in your family to get skin cancer. “There’s certainly a major genetic component to melanoma, but sun exposure and indoor tanning are also huge risk factors,” says Dendy Engelman, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery at New York Medical College in Valhalla. Your risk of developing melanoma doubles from just five sunburns, regardless of your family history.

applying sunscreen
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“I have dark skin; I don’t burn.”

Skin cancers may be less common in dark skin tones, but they do occur. And when a person of color gets melanoma, it tends to be diagnosed at a later stage. Why? Most likely because no one was looking for it. The most common type of melanoma in dark skin is acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), which shows up in less-than-obvious places like the soles of your feet or in fingernails and toenails. ALM accounts for less than 1% of melanomas in those with fair skin, but 30% to 70% in people of color, according to the American Cancer Society.

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“I’m afraid the doctor will find something.”

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of what ifs, but here’s a bit of reassuring news: Research has shown that the majority of moles are benign—77%, according to one study in JAMA Dermatology. And if your dermatologist does find something suspicious, know that a biopsy is relatively painless. Most people say the worst of it is the pinch of the needle from the local anesthetic.

ABCDE
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“I do my own self-checks.”

Kudos! You should monitor your own moles. Doctors say to be aware of the ABCDEs of melanoma: asymmetry, border (a jagged, uneven one), color (black, brown, red, pink, blue, or clear), diameter (5 millimeters, the size of a pencil eraser), and evolution (changes in size, texture). But Dr. Markowitz doesn’t want you to wait for these signs to see a doctor. “With a mole greater than 5 millimeters, we may already be dealing with advanced melanoma.” Getting annual skin checks by a trained physician is the best way to catch a new spot before it evolves into something worse.

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“I’ve had these moles forever.”

While it’s true that the majority of melanomas are new growths, close to 30% of melanomas are found in moles you’ve probably had for as long as you can remember. A dermatologist monitors these existing moles for changes in size, color, shape, or texture--changes that can be overlooked by your untrained eye “When things are slow growing, you might not notice any changes,” says Dr. Engelman. “We can take measurements and pictures—pictures are objective.”

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“I never go out in the sun.”

UV rays from the sun (as well as tanning beds) is the biggest culprit for skin cancer, but cancerous moles and lesions can pop up where the sun doesn’t shine—the soles of your feet, inside your mouth or genitals, even in internal organs. So experts know UV isn’t the only contributing factor. And while you might avoid the sun as an adult, cancer-causing UV damage is cumulative and has been linked to childhood sunburns. Even one blistering burn as a kid ups your chances of developing skin cancer later in life. Praise your pal’s smart choices—and remind her that she still needs an appointment!

Krista Bennett DeMaio
Meet Our Writer
Krista Bennett DeMaio

Krista Bennett DeMaio has well over a decade of editorial experience. The former magazine-editor-turned-freelance writer regularly covers skincare, health, beauty, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in national publications and websites including Oprah, Women’s Health, Redbook, Shape, Dr. Oz The Good Life, bhg.com, and prevention.com. She lives in Huntington, New York with her husband and three daughters.