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Published on September 07, 2017

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To Check or Not to Check: Should You Be Screened for Skin Cancer?

Not everyone wants to get up close and personal with their moles and sunspots, but it’s an important step in skin health and skin cancer detection.

After all, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer among men and women. While self-exams are important to detect changes in moles or other skin marks, a dermatologist can do a detailed skin check and is trained to know what to look for.

When should I have this done and how often?

There is no set age for regular skin checks to begin or how often they should occur, said Jenny Nelson, MD, a dermatologist with Avera Medical Group Dermatology Sioux Falls.

“I’ve had 20-year-olds who’ve had scary moles,” Nelson said. “There is no universal age. Melanoma in people younger than 30 is rare but does happen. By age 50 it’s not uncommon to have skin cancer.”

If you have a family history of skin cancer, suntan or use tanning beds, you’re at increased risk. Otherwise, it’s wise to have a skin check whenever you notice concerning spots.

Your dermatologist will do a baseline check and then recommend how often you should return. If no abnormalities are found, you may not have to come back every year, but a yearly check might be recommended if your doctor finds a skin lesion that looks concerning.

What exactly does a skin check involve?

That depends on you and your history. A dermatologist will be as detailed as you want to be. Ultimately, they would like to check all areas of your skin, particularly if you have a history of melanoma, Nelson said.

Nelson knows what she is looking for. Using an overhead light and glasses with magnifiers, she will scan the patient’s body for concerning marks. She has a dermascope to use when something piques her interest. This has a light that allows her to see through the top layer of skin.

Skin checks typically take five to 15 minutes if nothing is found.

What is the doctor looking for?

Nelson is looking for abnormal looking moles and freckles on the skin based on shape, pigment, size and more.

The most common types of cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious because it moves to other areas of the body, which can be deadly.

What happens if something is detected?

Cancerous moles can often be removed by your doctor at the clinic. For melanoma, providers may check lymph nodes to see if it has metastasized. In such cases a more aggressive treatment plan would be followed.

In Sioux Falls, Nelson uses a technique called Mohs surgery, which removes one layer of skin at a time. Layers are removed until the skin tests negative for cancer. For melanoma cancers, a different technique is used to ensure all the cancer is removed from the skin.

What can I do at home?

Follow ABCDE when checking your skin at home.

  • Asymmetry. One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border irregularity. The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.
  • Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that seem to have lost color.
  • Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.
  • Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.

For more questions, talk to your primary provider or contact your dermatologist.

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