Although frequently cited as the most common type of cancer in the United States, skin cancer remains a deadly condition if it is not caught in time. Did you know, for example, that the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a monthly top to bottom inspection of your skin to catch skin cancer as early as possible? Many people don’t.
If caught early enough and excised sufficiently, skin cancer can be dealt with without major intervention, such as radiation or chemotherapy. But the key is early detection. The longer skin cancer persists, the harder it is to treat.
Early detection involves a complete inspection of your skin. It is recommended that you use a full-length mirror and plenty of light. It is also recommended that you use a hand-held mirror where necessary to look at hard-to-see patches of skin.
How, then, do you recognize skin cancer? What does it look like?
Even with inspections, skin cancer can get by you if you don’t know what symptoms are important. Some people look for one or two signs of skin cancer and let other visible symptoms go untreated because they were not aware of all the signs. For example, rough, patchy, irritated skin that is sometimes crusty can be a sign of skin cancer that people looking for brown spots might miss. A thorough inspection has to be a diligent one, as well.
The safest practice is to report any new or changing conditions on your skin to your physician. Proper laboratory analysis may be required to diagnose skin cancer and is always required to confirm a diagnosis.
Having said this, many symptoms could simply be discoloration of the skin that comes with aging and with a variety of skin growths that are not cancerous. A physician, of course, will take a skin sample for testing. The laboratory will then perform a biopsy, which is a close examination of the skin cells that were removed.
Here’s what to look for during your own monthly examinations:
ABCDE is a commonly used guideline that can help you remember what to look for when inspecting your body for skin cancer. Explained in detail below, the initials stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolving.
- Asymmetry – this is defined as spots that are not balanced. If one side of a mole or a birthmark is a different shape than the other, this could be a sign of melanoma
- Border – instead of smoothly round or oval spots, these are spots that have a splotchy look around the edges
- Color – Similar to asymmetry, look for spots in which one side is a darker shade or a different color than the other side
- Diameter – This is a general guideline. If a brown spot is the size of a pencil eraser or larger, you should bring this to the attention of your doctor. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, as some melanoma are smaller
- Evolving – this refers to spots that are changing in size, color, texture or shape. To add to that, consider any new spots to be suspicious, as well.
- If removing the melanoma can be done locally at a physician’s office, that may be all that’s required. Your physician, of course, will want to take skin samples near the excised spot to check and see that all the cancer cells have been removed.
- Freezing – Skin cancer spots can sometimes be frozen with liquid nitrogen, which destroys the cancer cells
- Mohs surgery – this procedure is used to fight large or persistent skin cancer spots. This precision-type removal is also used in places like the face, where patients want to save as much skin as possible
- Curettage and electrodesiccation – refers to the use of a scraping tool known as a curet or an electric needle that can be pinpointed to destroy cancer cells
- Photodynamic therapy – involves using laser light to destroy cancer cells
- Radiation therapy – targeted radiation used to destroy cancer cells
- Chemotherapy – refers to using drugs to fight cancer cells. If caught early, topical creams can be used to kill the cells. If cancer has progressed, ingested pharmaceutical options are available.