How to check your skin for skin cancer
A self-check can help protect you from skin cancer
When it comes to skin cancer detection, it’s a case of the sooner it’s spotted, the easier it is to treat and the better your chances of avoiding surgery, potential disfigurement and even death.
At nib, we want to empower you to take control of your health and the best way to catch skin cancer early? Well, it’s all about getting well acquainted with your own skin.
The majority of skin cancers are actually found by people checking their own skin or are noticed by a loved one. Knowing your skin and what’s normal for you makes it easier to spot any suspicious-looking spots or lumps quickly.
What is skin cancer?
When skin cells are damaged by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, they can grow out of control and form a mass or tumour. If this tumour is malignant, it is skin cancer. There are three main types of skin cancer – melanoma (the deadliest form), basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Since Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with more than 2,000 Aussies dying each year from the disease, getting into the habit of regularly checking your skin is vital.
What to look for in a skin cancer self-check
Melanomas may appear as a new spot or an existing spot that changes in colour, size or shape. While melanomas usually occur on parts of the body that have been sunburned, they can appear in places not normally exposed to the sun, such as between the toes or the soles of the feet. You can also follow the ABCDE method (below) to help identify melanomas.
Nodular melanoma looks different to regular melanoma. They are raised, firm to touch and even in colour. Nodular melanomas may be red, pink, brown or black, and they grow quickly – see your doctor immediately if you notice these changes.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
The most common form of skin cancer, BCC often appears as a red, pale or pearly lump or scaly area that may ulcerate or fail to heal. They’re usually slow-growing and appear on areas of the body with high sun exposure – and though they’re the least dangerous form of skin cancer, you still need to see your healthcare professional if you notice these changes.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
SCC usually appears on parts of the skin that have had sun exposure as thickened, red, scaly patches. They may bleed easily, crust or ulcerate. If you notice any of these changes, visit your doctor.
What you’ll need for a skin check
Performing a self-skin check is easy and all you need is a room with plenty of light, a full-length mirror and either a handheld mirror or a partner/loved one to help. (You can return the favour once they’re done!)
How to perform a self-skin check
Undress completely and, making sure you have good light, stand in front of your full-length mirror. Have your handheld mirror (or helper) at the ready.
“Check your skin regularly – say every six months. Become familiar with any pigmented lesions. If there’s a change in a lesion or it’s new, then get it checked out and ask your partner to check if it's difficult to see spots. It’s also not a bad idea to take photos each year of large moles – that way you can document and compare!” says Dr Hamish Black, nib group medical advisor.
It’s not a bad idea to take photos each year of large moles – that way you can document and compare!
Check your skin all over
Make sure you check your entire body, including areas that are not often (if ever) exposed to the sun, such as between the fingers and toes, the soles of the feet and under the fingernails. Use a mirror or ask your partner to check hard-to-see spots like your back and scalp.
Look for new spots or changes in the skin
As you’re checking your skin in the mirror, keep an eye out for new spots, freckles or moles, as well as any changes in colour, size or shape of existing spots, bleeding spots or moles and freckles that look different to the others.
“You are looking for the ABCDE of melanoma changes – asymmetry, border, colour, diameter and evolving,” says Hamish.
ABCDE of melanoma
Fast-growing melanoma can become life threatening in just six weeks, so it’s crucial to know the signs when performing a skin cancer self-exam. Use the ‘ABCDE’ method to look for melanoma.
A is for asymmetry. Look for spots that are asymmetrical, not round.
B is for border. Look for spots with uneven borders.
C is for colour. Look out for spots with an unusual or uneven colour.
D is for diameter. Look for any spots that have increased in size and are larger than 7mm.
E is for evolution. Pay attention to any changes to the spots on your skin and if you see anything evolving, see your doctor as soon as possible. It may just save your life.
What's the difference between a freckle and a mole?
Both moles and freckles appear as darker spots on the skin, but while moles are usually raised, freckles are flat. In both, the colour is due to melanin, which can darken with sun exposure, and moles occur when pigment-containing skin cells (‘melanocytes’) form a cluster. While skin cancer self-checks are important, do keep in mind that not all spots are cancerous – and most moles are harmless.
How often to check
There are no current guidelines on how often people should check their skin, but the Cancer Council recommends people regularly monitor their skin with self-examinations.
What to do if you find something suspicious
If you do notice a new mole or spot on your skin, see any changes to any existing spots or simply have any concerns about the spots on your skin, be sure to book a visit with your GP as quickly as possible. They can identify whether a spot is harmless or needs closer attention.
“It’s so important to see your GP or skin specialist. If the lesion isn’t removed or biopsied and you’re still concerned, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion,” says Hamish.
Need some help understanding your risk of developing skin cancer? Take the nib skin self-assessment.
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Dr Hamish Black
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Dr Hamish Black
Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.