How to Detect Skin Cancer Early

Your skin is your body’s first line of defense, which makes it extremely vulnerable to the environmental hazards of day-to-day life. Unfortunately, as a result, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime (we can assume the same goes for people in other countries, but we couldn’t find data to back that up).

Early detection is key to effectively treating different forms of skin cancer, so we’ve done the research and put together this guide on how to check your skin for signs of melanoma, basal, squamous, or Merkel cell carcinoma. If you have any inkling whatsoever that a mole or other discoloration could be cancerous, consult your dermatologist immediately.

How to Give Yourself an Inspection

To stay ahead of skin cancer, you must familiarize yourself with every spot on your body. We’re talking about moles, freckles, age spots, or any other discoloration. Skin cancer can develop anywhere, so it’s important to be thorough when performing your inspection.

Stand in front of a full-length mirror and start by inspecting your front and back sides from head to toe. Next, inspect your right and left sides with your arms raised.

check-your-skin-in-the-mirror

After you’ve looked in the highly visible places on your body, you’re going to need a hand mirror to get a view of the harder to reach places. Start with the back of your neck and scalp. Part your hair to ensure you get a good look at different areas on your scalp.

Next, check all of your nooks and crannies. Arms, elbows, palms, lower back, buttocks, legs, knees, and feet all need to be inspected closely with your hand mirror. If available, have someone assist you in looking at some of the harder to reach places.

Now that you’ve identified any and all of dark spots on your body, how can you tell what’s cancerous and what’s not?

Melanoma

Melanoma is by far the most deadly form of skin cancer. Fortunately, if caught early, it can be fully treatable.

When looking for melanoma, you should use the ABCDE method of inspection.

Asymmetry: Is one half of the spot larger or smaller than the other?

a
Asymmetrical

Border: Is the border of the spot irregular, blurred, or frayed?

b
Uneven Border

Color: Are the colors on the spot changing from one area to another?

Multiple Colors
Multiple Colors

Diameter: Is the spot larger than the size of a pencil eraser (6mm)? Melanomas typically are larger, but can be smaller when diagnosed.

d
Larger than 6mm

Evolving: Does the spot look different from other spots? Have you noticed a change over time?

e
Changing in size, shape, and color

If you exhibit any of these symptoms, consult your dermatologist immediately for a professional screening.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell skin cancer is much more common and a bit less dangerous than melanoma and usually appears in areas that get a lot of sun (face, head, neck, shoulders, etc.).

Look for the following characteristics:

  • Raised, irritated reddish patches
  • Flat, stiff pale or yellow areas resembling a scar
  • A raised, glossy, semitranslucent pink, red, tan, black, brown, or white nodule
  • Open sores that don’t fully heal or heal only to come right back
  • Pink ring-like growths with raised edges and lowered centers. They could possibly circle an irritated blood vessel that spreads out from the center like spokes of a tire.

If found quickly, basal cell carcinoma can be easily treated. However, the larger the tumor grows, the more treatment required.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer and, similar to basal cell cancers, squamous cell cancers tend to appear in areas that get a lot of sun. They can realistically grow anywhere, but pay particular attention for these when checking your face, ears, lips, and hands.

Look out for the following characteristics:

  • Scaly red patches with irregular borders
  • An elevated growth with a depression in the center
  • A persistent open sore that bleeds and crusts
  • A wart-like growth that occasionally bleeds

If you would like to see what both basal and squamous cell carcinomas look like, here is a link to a picture from a medical textbook: Basal & Squamous cell carcinomas

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

This form of skin cancer is rare (roughly 40x more rare than melanoma), but very aggressive and carries with it a high risk of spreading throughout the body.

The primary risk factors for this type of cancer include being over 50, being male, having fair skin, plenty of UV exposure through the sun or tanning beds, and having some form of immune suppression.

Look out for the following characteristics:

  • Firm, painless lesions
  • Red, blue, purple, or skin-colored nodules
  • About the size of a dime (17mm)

The pictures of Merkel cell carcinomas are particularly brutal and vary wildly so feel free to google at your own discretion if you’re curious.


The key is to stay vigilant and maintain an up-to-date knowledge of everything going on with your skin. Give yourself a check-up every few weeks and note any changes in dark spots or moles. As soon as you think somethings not right, don’t hesitate to set up an appointment with your dermatologist for a professional opinion. Stay safe out there!

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