Everything You Need To Know About Skin Cancer Screenings
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Did you know that it is also the most preventable? Even so, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. If the facts shock you, you’re not alone. How can a preventable cancer be so common? Well, it’s our responsibility to take a proactive approach to skin health and getting a full-body check by your dermatologist is a non-negotiable part of the prevention plan.
“Besides doing at-home skin checks, it’s extremely important to visit your dermatologist at least yearly for a professional full body screen,” says Adriana Lombardi, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of the Skin Cancer and Cosmetic Surgery Center of New Jersey. “An untrained eye won’t be able to tell the difference between a benign and malignant lesion.”
Early detection leads to a more favorable skin cancer prognosis, so committing to these screens has to be a priority along with practicing safe sun. If you’re intimidated by the idea of stripping down in front of your dermatologist, we’re here to assure you that it’s not as invasive as you think. In fact, it is quick, easy, and can — quite literally — save your life.
Types of Skin Cancer
There are three different types of skin cancer that dermatologists look for during skin checks:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC): The most common form of skin cancer with about 4.3 million cases in the U.S. each year, BCC usually develops after years of frequent sun exposure
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC): Comes in as the second most common form of skin cancer with over a million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year; SCC can grow deep into the skin and cause disfigurement
- Melanoma: The most dangerous form of skin cancer due to its ability to spread; there will be an estimated 196,060 cases to be diagnosed in 2020, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation
If you commit to regular skin checks with your dermatologist and practice safe sun, all forms of skin cancer can be caught early and treated almost immediately.
How Often to Get Checked
Generally speaking, it’s important to start getting annual full-body screenings by a board certified dermatologist at 18 years of age. Depending on your medical history, however, more frequent checks may be needed. “If you have a history of skin cancer, it’s important to get screened more often — typically every four to six months,” says New York City-based board certified dermatologist Amy Spizuoco, DO. “This is because once you have one skin cancer, you have a 50 percent greater chance of getting another one. It’s also to check for recurrence of any previously treated skin cancers.”
And it’s not just about your own medical history. If you have a high risk of melanoma in your family, you’ll want to start getting checked earlier. “It’s a good idea to get a baseline of your moles even when you’re younger than 18, so your dermatologist can keep track of your normal and recommend follow up visits from there,” Dr. Lombardi explains. While studies show that people with lighter skin tones, hair, and eyes are more at risk of developing skin cancer, no one is safe in the sun. All ethnicities need to take regular full-body screens seriously.
What Dermatologists Look For During Skin Cancer Screenings
Dermatologists are trained to scan the whole body — from the scalp to the toenails — for anything that may be irregular, using the ABCDE rule of skin cancer to identify malignant melanoma.
- A – Asymmetry: Sides are unequal
- B – Border: Rough or jagged edges
- C – Color: Various shades of brown, tan, black, red, white, or blue
- D – Diameter: Larger than 6 millimeters (think: a pencil eraser)
- E – Evolving: Changing, growing, bleeding
On average, a body scan takes about 10 to 15 minutes starting with a conversation between you and your dermatologist about any history of suspicious spots. “We use a small, handheld device called a dermatoscope,” Dr. Spizuoco explains. “It has a magnifier and polarized light to help visualize the skin more precisely.”
What Happens If Something Is Found
If your dermatologist finds a suspicious mole, they’ll either take note and keep an eye on it through follow up visits or biopsy it. Trust us, a biopsy isn’t as intimidating as it sounds and may be necessary to find out if the spot is benign (read: not harmful) or malignant (i.e. dangerous). “Sometimes, we can tell with our naked eye if something is cancerous, but sending a sample to pathology confirms a diagnosis,” Dr. Lombardi says.
If you need a biopsy, your dermatologist will use a local anesthetic (via a needle or topical) to numb the area(s) of concern. There are different types of biopsies depending on the size, depth, and location of the mole. Most of the time, a scraping of the top layer of the skin — to get a sample of the tissue — is all that’s needed. The biopsy is then sent out to a pathology lab to be evaluated and a report is sent to your doctor.
If your biopsy comes back benign, then you can return to your annual skin checks. If it’s malignant, you’ll discuss next steps with your dermatologist at a follow-up appointment. The type and stage of cancer will determine your treatment options.
Skin Cancer Prevention
When we hear the word ‘cancer,’ our minds travel to worst-case scenarios and a wave of fear rushes over us. When it comes to skin cancer though, early detection greatly improves the prognosis. In addition to visiting your dermatologist for regular skin checks, make sure to also take an active role in prevention and protection by adopting the following habits:
- Examine your own skin once per month for any changes
- Use an SPF of at least 30 with UVA/UVB protection daily (yes, even if it’s cloudy!)
- Reapply your SPF every two hours and immediately after swimming
- Stay in the shade between 10am and 4pm
- Wear a wide-brim hat to shade your face and polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes
- Avoid indoor tanning
It is never too late to start taking care of your skin. To find a dermatologist in your area, visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s website.