Melanoma can be found early. Health care professionals and patients both play important roles in finding skin cancer early. Part of a routine cancer-related checkup should include a skin examination by a health care professional qualified to diagnose skin cancer. Doctors should be willing to discuss any reservations patients might have about this examination. The American Cancer Society recommends a cancer-related checkup, including skin examination, every three years for people between 20 and 40 years of age, and every year for anyone age 40 and older.
It's also important to check your own skin, preferably once a month. You should know the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you'll notice any changes. Self-examination is best done in front of a full-length mirror. A hand-held mirror can be used for areas that are hard to see. A spouse or other partner may be able to help you with these examinations, especially for those hard-to-see areas, like the lower back or the back of your thighs. All areas should be examined, including the palms and soles, the lower back, and the back of the legs. Be sure to show your doctor any area that concerns you. Friends and family members can also help by telling one another about abnormal-appearing areas of skin. Be sure to ask your doctor to look at areas which may be hard for you to see. About one of every three melanomas in men are on the back.
Spots on the skin that are changing in size, shape, or color should be evaluated promptly. Any unusual sore, lump, blemish, marking, or change in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of skin cancer or a warning that it might occur. The skin might become scaly or crusty or begin oozing or bleeding. It may feel itchy, tender, or painful. Redness and swelling may develop. Since moles may develop into melanoma or indicate an increased risk for melanoma, it is important to know the difference between melanoma and an ordinary mole. Sometimes this may be difficult to tell-show your doctor any mole that you are unsure of.
A normal mole is generally an evenly-colored brown, tan, or black spot on the skin. It can be either flat or raised. It can be round or oval. Moles are generally less than 6 millimeters (1/4 inch) in diameter (about the width of a pencil eraser). A mole can be present at birth or it can appear during childhood or young adulthood. Several moles can appear at the same time, especially on areas of the skin exposed to the sun.
Once a mole has developed, it will usually stay the same size, shape, and color for many years. Moles may eventually fade away in older people. Most people have moles, and almost all moles are harmless. But it is important to recognize changes in a mole that can suggest a melanoma may be developing.
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