How do I know if I have skin cancer?

I walked into the exam room and noticed Peggy, an overweight blond, blue-eyed, middle-aged Irish women, wrapped in a blue paper gown. She was sweating profusely. After a brief greeting she blurted out, “I think I have skin cancer.”  She felt perfectly fine otherwise. She had no pain or itching. Peggy was convinced she was joining the ranks of her older sister, father, and maternal grandfather, all of whom had been diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in the past.

Later, that same day, Tina, a young brunette Wall Street trader also visited the office with concerns that she had skin cancer. She noticed a new brown colored growth on her right upper leg. She admitted to having been a tanning bed addict as a teenager, that she loved the sun and suffered many a sunburn as a child. In addition, Tina confessed that she never used sunscreen, well almost never, except for the small amount that might have been present in some of her makeup.

With the help of Google, Tina matched her mind’s image of her growth with a photo of a biopsy-proven skin cancer she found on the Internet. She couldn’t think of anything else since she noticed that harmless appearing pencil eraser-sized growth several weeks ago and self-diagnosed her skin cancer and not just any cancer, but malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

Tina was unable to concentrate at work.  By her own admission, she spent hours ruminating over the possibility of surgery, chemotherapy, and ultimately, not being around for her 36th birthday.

One in five Americans is expected to develop skin cancer

One in five Americans is expected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime.  And anyone can get it, regardless of skin color.

Fortunately, skin cancer is one of the easiest cancers to diagnosis, and, if found early, to treat. Because they are almost always visible on the skin, if the person is looking for changes, they are likely to find a skin cancer early. Moral of the story: do self-examinations monthly.

Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, so be thorough. Check the nails, between the toes, and inside your mouth. Use a hand mirror to check hard to see areas, including your back and private places. When shampooing, feel around the scalp and glimpse through the hair.

If you find a new growth or a wound that isn’t healing (and I wouldn’t wait more than 2 or 3 weeks to see if that wound goes away on its own), if you find a spot on your skin that looks different than everything else, if you see a change in an existing mole or birthmark, if you discover an area of skin that scales, bleeds, turns red, or changes in any way (size, shape or color), make an appointment with a dermatologist. You’ve done your job. Found early, skin cancer, even melanoma, is very treatable. As for Peggy and Tina, happy to announce, neither were diagnosed with skin cancer.

So, if you find a new growth on your body how do you know if it is skin cancer? Simple answer, you don’t.  The average layperson does not know how to diagnose skin cancer, nor are you expected to. But it is your job to help find it!

Originally appeared in October 21, 2018
Written by Dr. Fayne Frey