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Have you ever had a hard time locating your car in a huge, crowded parking lot? Even though you know exactly what your car looks like, it can be tricky. Imagine how much harder it would be to locate someone else’s car, especially if you’d never seen it before.

Without a clear image in your mind of what you’re looking for, it’s impossible to find it. The same is true with skin cancer.  Research shows patients who have seen actual images of skin cancer are more likely to detect it, and the confidence that comes with that knowledge leads them to look more often, lowering their risk of skin cancer-related death.

So do you know what you’re looking for?

patients skin being examined


Even though skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, most people don’t really know what to look for.  The American College of Mohs Surgery (ACMS) notes that most skin lesions are not skin cancers, creating a sea of friendly moles and freckles to navigate when looking for the signs of skin cancer.  This can make skin cancer detection even more difficult.

An article published by Stanford Medicine discusses a recent study by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Their research indicates that people who have been shown images of skin cancer were more adept at spotting suspicious-looking lesions, and also more likely to conduct self-exams than those who had only read text descriptions of how to check for cancer. The typical text description of what to look for during a self-check includes:

  • A small, often painless, pink or translucent bump
  • Thickened scar-like tissue
  • Red, scaly skin that may bleed and scab over, but doesn’t heal
  • A scaly bump
  • Rapid lesion growth
  • A mole that becomes tender, painful, or itchy
  • Sudden darkening near or within an existing mole
  • A mole that has changed color, shape, and/or size

This is valuable information, but according to the study, viewing a variety of skin cancer photos can improve your odds of detecting skin cancer early.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone perform a self-check on a monthly basis.  This will help you get to know your skin and what is and isn’t normal for your body, giving you a better chance of catching skin cancer early.  Skin cancers found and removed early are almost always curable.  Checking involves more than looking at your skin in the shower, a proper self-check includes:

  • Holding a hand mirror behind your head in front of your bathroom mirror to check the back of your neck, shoulders, and behind your ears
  • Examining under your fingernails
  • Propping feet up on a stool to use a hand mirror to check bottoms of feet, backs of legs, and between thighs.

If you notice any change to your skin, or suspect a lesion might be cancerous, the best course of action is to see a dermatologist.  Due to skin cancer’s frequency, morbidity rate, and ease of early detection/treatment, new, highly effective skin cancer treatments are emerging regularly and are typically less invasive the earlier the tumor is caught.

The Skin Cancer Foundation considers Mohs Surgery to be the single most effective treatment for the two most common types of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.  It’s a micrographic surgery which preserves as much healthy tissue as possible.  The Mohs surgeon performs the excision, the pathologic examination of the tissue, and the reconstruction. Depending on the type, size, and depth, other treatment options may be used, including excisional surgery, laser therapy, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.  If the tumor is caught early and is small enough, no skin cancer treatment may be required after the initial biopsy, which might remove the entire growth while getting a large enough sample size.

When it comes to skin cancer, early detection is the next best thing to prevention.

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