Know Thy Moles: Self-Exams to Reduce Your Cancer Risk

With over five million new cases treated by doctors every year, skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. But the good news is that when caught early, these cancers are almost always curable.

To catch skin cancer before it becomes a major health issue, it’s important for you to do regular, full-body exams of your skin. You can do these exams yourself—all it takes is a bright light, a mirror, a chair, and, if you have long hair, a blow dryer.

Before getting started, here’s what you should be looking for:

  • A growth on the skin that has recently grown in size and looks tan, brown, black, pearly, pink, or a combination of colors.
  • Moles or brown spots that change in color, size, thickness, texture, borders, or that are larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Moles or sores that aren’t healing properly.
  • Moles or sores that itch, hurt, or bleed for an unusually long time.

Doing the self-exam is easy:

  • Start by looking at your face, using a mirror to see difficult-to-examine areas. Pay special attention to your nose, lips, mouth, and ears.
  • Look at your scalp, using a blow dryer to see the skin under your hair when necessary.
  • Thoroughly check your hands, wrists, and arms.
  • Look at your neck, chest, and torso.
  • Using a handheld mirror and wall mirror, you can inspect your back, buttocks, and legs.
  • Finish by sitting down and looking at any areas you may have missed, including your feet, ankles, and toes.

You should do a skin self-exam once a month, paying close attention to any recent changes. Once you get used to the routine, these exams shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

If you do notice a change in a mole or lesion, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Chances are good that your doctor will then refer you to a dermatologist, a physician specializing in treating diseases of the skin.

The best thing you can do to protect against skin cancer is taking steps to avoid it. This means using sunscreen that is at least SPF 15 or higher, covering up with clothing when out in the sun, avoiding tanning booths, and making sure you don’t allow yourself to get sunburnt. Doing these four simple things will go a long way toward preventing skin cancer, but you should still give yourself a monthly self-exam.

Skin cancer can be deadly, but by paying close attention to any changing moles or lesions on your body, you can catch potential skin problems before they become serious issues. Self-exams of the skin are something every adult should be doing—so the next time you do a self-exam, be sure to remind your family and friends that they should be doing these exams, too!