Spotting Skin Cancer


Chris Iliades, MD

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Man in bathroom looking at mirror

Skin cancer is very common. It's also very curable if you catch it early enough. Even melanoma—the most dangerous type—is nearly always curable if you catch it before it spreads. 

Performing a self-exam for skin cancer can help you spot it before it becomes a problem. It's a good idea to let your doctor do the first exam to make sure everything looks good. Your doctor can also tell you whether you have any moles or freckles that you should watch carefully. Your doctor also may want you to do frequent self-exams if you have skin growths that look unusual. Here are the basics of a skin cancer self-exam.

What to Look For

There are three main types of skin cancer, and they can all look a little different. The main types are basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. By looking for the following skin growths or skin changes, you will be able to spot all three types: 

  • A thickened, red patch of dry skin that does not go away
  • A flesh-colored, pink, red, or brown skin lump
  • A pimple or sore that does not go away or keeps coming back
  • A waxy scar that is flesh-colored, white, or yellow
  • A white or yellow growth that is hard, sunken or flat
  • An open sore that itches, bleeds, and doesn't go away or keeps coming back
  • An existing mole that changes in size, shape or color
  • An existing mole that starts to itch or bleed
  • A new mole that grows quickly, hurts, itches or bleeds

Where to Look

Skin cancers usually appear on the parts of your body that get the most sun. That includes your ears, lips, face, hands and arms. But skin cancers can also show up in other places, including your genital area and anywhere you have moles. That means you need to look everywhere.

How to Look

To do a self-exam, you will need bright light, a large wall mirror, a handheld mirror, and a place to sit. Follow these steps: 

  • Face the mirror on the wall. Check your face, ears, neck, chest and belly. If you're a woman, lift your breasts and check underneath.

  • Check the top of your scalp. Use a hair dryer or a comb to move your hair so you can see your scalp.

  • Use the mirror to check your hands and arms. Lift your arms to see your underarms in the mirror. Check your hands, fingers and fingernails. Melanoma may appear as a black or brown area under a fingernail or toenail.

  • Turn your back to the wall mirror and use the hand mirror to check the back side of your body. Check your neck and shoulders, the backs of your arms, your back, your rear end, and the backs of your legs.

  • Have a seat and take a close look at your thighs, calves, feet and toes. Don’t forget to look between your toes and at the soles of your feet.

  • Use a hand mirror to check your genital area. 

When to Look

The Skin Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society recommend that people do a head-to-toe self-exam for skin cancer about once a month. After you take a bath or shower is a good time to do this. It should only take about 10 minutes. 

Now that you know the why, what, how and when of a skin cancer self-exam, don’t forget the most important part. If you find anything that worries you, let your doctor take a look. Your doctor might refer you to a dermatologist—a skin specialist—for testing.