How to Spot Skin Cancer

Key Points

  • Skin cancer is highly treatable, so early detection is important
  • Get to know your skin, and any existing spots. Look for any new spots or changes to existing ones and report this to your doctor.
  • Prevent skin cancer before it starts by avoiding the mid-day sun, and wearing protective clothing.

It's scary to think that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, but it's also the most survivable type of cancer.  Early detection helps catch this type of cancer while it's curable.  This means it's incredibly important to learn how to spot skin cancer, and when to see your doctor.

There are two types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma.  This can be broken down into basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.  

Non-melanoma cancers are usually caught early and are removed surgically, and that is often the end of it.  It's unlikely that basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas will spread.

Melanoma is the more aggressive form of skin cancer.  It's more likely to spread, but it still quite survivable.  The American Cancer Society says the typical 5 year survival is 92%, and if diagnosed before it has spread, that goes up to 98%.  That said, if it has spread to non-adjacent parts of the body, the survival rate drops to 23%.

So, catching melanoma BEFORE it spreads is critical.

How Can You Catch Skin Cancer Early?

The best thing to do today, is get to know your body.  Look over all of it, and learn to recognize all of the spots, and moles.  What shape and color are they?  How do they normally grow?  We all get more spots as we get older, but make a note of any new spots that aren't typical for your skin.

It also helps to have your doctor give you a baseline screening so you can get to know any spots they might see.  They can give you warning signs to look for as well.

Evaluate New Spots

New spots should be reported to your doctor.   Dermatologists refer to the the ABCDEs of checking new spots for changes:  Look for Asymmetry: a mole that isn't round or symmetrical should be checked out.  Look at the Border: if the edge of the spot is jagged or irregular, show it to your doctor.  Look at the Color: uneven color should be evaluated.  Look at the Diameter: larger spots are more of a concern than smaller spots.  And finally, look to see if the spot is Evolving: spots that continue to change should be discussed with your doctor.

Any or all of the characteristics of new spots should be discussed with your doctor.  Remember, early detection is actually common, and highly treatable, so it's good to keep an eye on any new spots, or changes to existing spots and evaluate them.

Check Areas that Get More Sun

Typically, men are more likely to get skin cancer on their back, and women are more likely to get skin cancer on their legs.   Men often will get spots on the tops of their ears if their hats don't cover them, and if they are bald or have thinning hair, they should check their scalp.

Check Other Areas, too

Melanoma can show up in other areas, too, like armpits, hands, in folds of skin, so make sure you get to know your usual spots, and look for anything that changes.

Prevent Skin Cancer Before it Starts

Spending time in the sun will increase your risk of skin cancer.   Some people work outdoors and don't have a lot of options, but if you can, it's best to avoid the sun, stay inside, during peak sunshine.  If you can't avoid the sun during peak hours, then wear a hat with a brim, long pants, and long sleeved shirts.  You can use sunscreen, but that's not a substitute for staying in the shade or wearing protective clothing.  Don't assume the sunscreen alone will protect you, that should be considered an extra bit to help, but not a solution on its own.  Reducing exposure is the first priority.




  • Prevention