The ABC’s of Skin Cancer

How to check your skin for melanoma.

Remember back to your childhood. How many times did you get bad sunburn? Maybe you don’t have to think back that far to know you’ve gotten burned more than a few times. Having five or more sunburns when you’re young increases your risk of developing melanoma by 80 percent. Five or more sunburns in your life and your risk doubles.

While only two percent of skin cancers are melanoma, it’s the most fatal form of skin cancer. And don’t think you’re only at risk if you’re older. Melanoma is the most common type of cancer for people in their late twenties, with the vast majority of melanoma cases caused by overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation or tanning beds.

Like any cancer, the earlier melanoma is detected the better your chance of successfully treating it. But unlike many other cancers, there are simple ways you can detect melanoma and protect against it without ever going to the doctor. Being familiar with the warning signs and checking your body regularly will help in early detection.

What You Need

In order to detect something abnormal, you have to know what normal is. To do this, perform a skin self-exam each month to watch for changes in the appearance of your skin, freckles, and moles. You’ll need a full-length mirror, a smaller hand-held mirror for inconspicuous body parts, a bright light, and a brush or blow dryer to help inspect your hair.

People with a high risk of skin cancer may benefit from taking pictures of their moles every few months to monitor any changes. All adults over age 40 should have a full-body skin exam each year by a physician.

Where to Look

There’s no part of your body immune to melanoma. It can grow anywhere from your scalp and inside your nostrils to under your fingernails and the spaces between your toes. While most melanomas are found on body parts that have been exposed to the sun, some are found in hidden places that rarely see the light of day, making them harder to find.

During your skin self-exam, start at the top of your head in your hair (for those who still have it) and slowly work your way down your body to the soles of your feet.

What to Look For

In most cases, melanoma first appears as a change in a preexisting mole, a change in the color of your skin, or a growth on your skin. The acronym ABCDE can help you identify melanoma. Cancerous moles may not exhibit all characteristics, and one or two is enough to warrant a visit to your doctor. Here’s what to look for.

Asymmetry. Normal moles are symmetrical, meaning they have the same shape on both sides if you were to fold it in half.

Border Irregularity. Moles should have smooth-shaped edges, not ragged, irregular, or hard-to-see edges.

Color. A normal mole is uniform in color, usually tan or brown. A mole that has multiple shades or is various shades of white, black, blue, or red is a warning sign.

Diameter. Moles should be oval or circular in shape and smaller than the diameter of a pencil eraser (a quarter inch).

Evolving. New moles or changing moles could signal melanoma.
Suspicious. Any time you’re unsure about the health of a mole, have it checked out.