Have You Been Screened for Skin Cancer?

Do you know the risk factors for skin cancer? What about the signs and symptoms for melanoma?

Did you know skin cancer is the most common type of cancer for us? More than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

It was those facts plus:

  1. Being a fair-skinned girl who burns easily, which is a group “at a particularly high risk for developing skin cancer,” according to the American Academy of Dermatology. 
  2. Developing a large (about the size of a pencil eraser) dark mole on my back directly after a bubbling, blistering sunburn I earned six years ago while passed out on the beach in the mid-day Barcelona sun.
  3. Reading health information every day at my job at the WebMD Health Network (for example, how dangerous the tanning beds are that I frequented regularly before all high school dances — and who am I kidding — before my wedding and honeymoon last year)

that finally pushed me over the edge to see a dermatologist for an upper body skin evaluation.

Yes, it may have taken me six years to finally muster the courage to have my skin checked out, but I’m so glad I did. Just as I sneakily suspected, the Barcelona mole was potentially cancerous.

Surprise!

The surprise was that Nili N. Alai, M.D., FAAD, of The Skin Center also found two other suspicious moles on my upper body that need to be removed.

One was right below my right breast where the tan line can shift depending on the bathing suit. It’s no coincidence that it is a spot that’s been sunburned many times over the years.

The other one that totally shocked me was a tiny (about the size of a pinhead), dark mole on the underside of my left arm. I’ve never paid attention to it and have no idea when it appeared. I would never have guessed that one to be potentially cancerous.

I go back in a couple of weeks to have them cut out. I’ll keep you updated.

What makes these three moles dangerous is that they each displayed warning signs of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. They had irregular borders and varied in color from one area to another.

The good news is that early detection is the best weapon against skin cancer. Make sure to examine your body regularly for the ABCDEs of melanoma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, you want to look for:

The ABCDEs of Melanoma

  • A – Asymmetry
    One half of the mole is unlike the other half.
  • B – Border
    The mole has an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
  • C – Color
    The color of the mole varies from one are to another; has different shades of tan, brown and black; sometimes white, red or blue.
  • D – Diameter
    While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E – Evolving
    A mole that looks different from other moles or freckles on your body or changes in size, shape or color needs to be examined.

If you have a lot of risk factors for skin cancer, such as:

  • Fair skin
  • Family history
  • Significant past history of sun exposure

you should probably see your dermatologist for an annual skin examination.

For more information and pictures of skin cancer, click here. For more information and pictures of melanoma, click here. (Quick disclosure reminder: These links take you to the WebMD Health Network where I work full-time.)

Please, please, please: If you’ve put off having your skin examined for skin cancer by a dermatologist, make it your No. 1 health goal to accomplish as soon as possible. Again, early detection dramatically improves your odds of beating skin cancer.

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5 Responses to Have You Been Screened for Skin Cancer?

  1. Great advice! Every January I make an appointment to see my dermatologist to get a full-body mole check. I have tons of moles and very, very fair skin, so it’s important to get them checked every year. I’ve had about 10 moles taken off in the last 3 years and I’m going to get 3 more taken off in a couple weeks. All have been benign, thankfully. But I still make sure I attend my annual appointment because you just never know.

    One important thing you forgot to mention is DAILY USE OF SUNSCREEN! Sunscreen will save your skin (and probably your life, as well).

    Yes, it looks cool to have a tan. I mean, who the hell wants to be the white person of the group?! But at the same time, being the “white person of the group” also means embracing the skin color that you were given, which I’ve finally done.

    (As a side note, I am the whitest person in my full-blooded Italian family. I’m so pasty that when I take pictures with my cousins they call it the “Oreo” pic, b/c I’m white sandwiched between two tan people, haha).

  2. Bob Bessette says:

    Hi,
    Great information. About 2 weeks ago I went to the dermatologist at the request of my doctor. I had two dark spots on my chest. They turned out to be nothing and the dermatologist froze them off. But at least I don’t have that concern anymore. I am fair-skinned and will keep my eye on any issues going forward.

    Best,
    Bob

  3. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Jennifer — great point about using sunscreen every day! To add on to that, make sure it’s at least SPF 15 and protects against UVA and UVB rays. I’ve been skeptical of the self-tanning creams or spray tans, but it may be time for me to give them a try … I’m not ready to embrace my paleness just yet! Glad you’re one step ahead of me, “Oreo!”

    Bob — That’s so good that you checked in with your dermatologist. Glad yours turned out to be nothing — it’s so much better to be safe than sorry!

  4. SPF 15 is really only good if you’re going to be inside most of the day. Aim for SPF 45 or higher if you’ll be spending more than a couple minutes outside. I personally use SPF 80, but that’s me.

  5. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Yeah, it really depends on the person. The key is reapplication if you’re at the pool or beach. Anything above SPF 50 though is just a gimmick. Here’s a great article on high SPF sunscreens. (Disclosure note: The article is from WebMD where I work full-time): http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/high-spf-sunscreens-are-they-better

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