Full-body skin exams can help save your life 

December 01, 2012
Dr. Janellen Smith

A full-body skin exam is a vital tool in screening patients for benign or cancerous lesions they may not see or recognize on their own, says Dr. Janellen Smith.

During a skin exam, patients are inspected for any suspicious growths, moles or lesions, says Smith. These scans are often performed with a dermascope, a special light source with a magnifying lens, to get a magnified view of questionable spots.

This quick and painless preventive measure is an invaluable tool in the early detection of skin cancers, including basal and squamous cell carcinomas and melanoma, as well as many other dermatological conditions.

Patients should schedule a skin exam by a qualified dermatologist if they have one or more of the following:

  • A suspicious mole or skin lesion
  • Symptoms of early skin cancer
  • A history of previous skin cancer
  • 50 or more moles
  • Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi)
  • A family history of skin cancer

Moles and other birthmarks are generally benign pigmented spots or patches of skin that range in color from tan, brown and black (moles) to red, pink or purple (vascular lesions, such as strawberry hemangiomas or port wine stains). Although most moles are harmless, some may undergo cellular changes and develop into cancer.

Signs of melanoma

Patients at risk for developing skin cancer should become familiar with the “ABCDE” rule of skin cancer detection, which means conducting self-examinations and watching for:

  • Asymmetry
    If you draw a line through a mole and the two halves do not match, it is an asymmetrical growth, a warning sign for melanoma.
  • Border
    The borders of a melanoma in the earliest stage tend to be uneven. The edges may even be scalloped or notched.
  • Color
    A mole or growth with a variety of colors is another warning signal fir melanoma. A number of differing shades of brown, tan or black may appear. Melanomas may also become red, blue or white in color.
  • Diameter
    Melanomas are usually larger in diameter than the size of a pencil eraser (about a quarter inch or more than six millimeters). But they may sometimes be smaller when detected early.
  • Evolving
    When a mole or skin growth is changing, see a doctor. Any change—in size, shape, color, elevation or other traits, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting—is a danger sign.

Everyone, not only those with an increased risk of developing skin cancer, should perform regular skin self-exams. Examining your skin for suspicious moles and other lesions could save your life. No one is immune to skin cancer.

How to perform a skin self-exam

It is important for you to examine your entire body as skin cancer can occur anywhere, not just on areas frequently exposed to the sun. Be sure to check your back, scalp, underarms, genitals, palms, soles and skin the between the your toes and fingers.

Become familiar with birthmarks, blemishes and moles so that you can spot changes. As you examine your skin, look for any change in the size, color, shape or texture of a mark on your skin. (The American Academy of Dermatology has a Body Mole Map guide for self examination.)

Signs of skin cancer include:

  • A mole or growth that differs from the rest, itches, bleeds or is changing in any way
  • A sore that never fully heals
  • A translucent growth with rolled edges
  • A brown or black streak beneath a fingernail or toenail
  • A cluster of slow-growing, shiny pink or red lesions
  • A scar that feels waxy to the touch
  • A flat or slightly depressed lesion that feels hard to the touch

Suspicious lesions

If you find a suspicious mole, lesion or other growth, contact a dermatologist immediately. Smith and other skin cancer specialists at UC Irvine’s Dermatology Center in Irvine and the Melanoma Center in Orange can properly evaluate any odd or concerning growth.

When making the appointment, be sure that the person making the appointment knows why you want to see the doctor. Skin cancer has a high cure rate when it is detected early.

Learn more about Dr. Smith ›

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 949-824-0606.

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