As many of us begin to emerge from three months under stay-at-home orders, doctors of all types are becoming absorbed with a new concern: a backlog of patients whose non-emergency care, including cancer screenings, was postponed.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend head-to-toe skin self-exams on a monthly basis and an in-person skin examination with a board-certified dermatologist at least once a year if you have a higher risk of skin cancer. Since it may take longer than normal to schedule an appointment with your dermatologist, it’s more important than ever to take responsibility for your own skin examination.
What’s the big deal? One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And early detection is critical. When detected early, the five-year survival rate for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, is 99%.
Essentially, when skin cancers are caught and treated early, they’re highly curable. In that light, a self-exam that takes just a few minutes is a small ask, no?
How to do a skin self-exam
Head-to-toe self-exams shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. That said, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of giving yourself a quick onceover in front of a full-length mirror before you get dressed every day to make sure there isn’t something new on your skin.
For the monthly self-exam, grab a hand mirror and a couple of chairs. The goal is to look for anything “new, changing, or unusual,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. More specifically, you can use a mnemonic device called the “ABCDEs of melanoma”:
- Look for markings on the skin that are asymmetric;
- Have uneven, scalloped, or notched borders;
- Appear black, brown, red, white, or blue in color;
- Are wider than six millimeters in diameter;
- And have evolved in color, shape, size, or with new symptoms, like bleeding, itching, or crusting.
Not included, but also worth noting are any sores that have been present for three weeks and don’t seem to be healing, or spots that continuously bleed, itch, or scab.
Now that you know what you’re looking for, use one or both of the mirrors to examine your face and scalp. (Use a blow-dryer to fully expose each section if you need to.) From there, carefully work your way down your body, making sure not to overlook the less-obvious spots, like between the fingers, under the fingernails, and under your breasts.
Then, use both mirrors to inspect the back of your neck, shoulders, upper back, the back of your upper arms, lower back, butt, and the backs of your legs. Finally, to examine the rest of your lower body, sit down and prop each leg up on the other chair. Use the hand mirror to examine the genitals, and finish checking the front and sides of both legs, right on down to between the toes and under the toenails.
If you come across any concerning markings, contact your dermatologist immediately.
One last note: These monthly self-exams are an important early screening tool, but they’re not meant to replace an in-person (or a virtual) skin check by your dermatologist. They’ll usually pick up on things that you wouldn’t notice on your own, no matter how thorough you are.