Check Yourself for Skin Cancer

Even if you are diligent about applying sunscreen and wearing protective hats and clothing outside, it may not be enough. A regular head-to-toe self-exam can help detect early signs of skin cancer. By checking your skin regularly, you'll learn what is normal for you and can more easily note abnormalities you should call to your doctor’s attention.

After all, between 40 and 50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, with more than 4 million cases of BCC diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. More than 1 million cases are diagnosed in the U.S. annually.

Melanoma is a third type of skin cancer—much less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. However, melanoma i very hazardous due to its increased likelihood of spreading.

Additional skin cancer stats from the Skin Cancer Foundation

  • Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
  • Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined.
  • Organ transplant patients are approximately 100 times more likely than the general public to develop squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Actinic keratosis is the most common precancer; it affects more than 58 million Americans.
  • Each year in the U.S. over 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people.
  • About 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
  • The annual cost of treating skin cancers in the U.S. is estimated at $8.1 billion, about $4.8 billion for nonmelanoma skin cancers and $3.3 billion for melanoma.

Checking for skin cancer
The following was compiled by Matthew Solan, the executive editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch, from info supplied by the National Institutes of Health Senior Health.

The best time to check your skin is after a shower or bath. Using a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror in a room with plenty of light, follow these five steps to check yourself from head to toe:

  • Look at your face, neck, ears and scalp. Consider using a comb to move your hair for better visibility. If necessary, have a relative or friend check your scalp through your hair.
  • Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror. Then, raise your arms and look at your left and right sides. Bend your elbows. Look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms top and bottom and upper arms.
  • Check the back, front and sides of your legs. Also check the skin all over your buttocks and genital area.
  • Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, the soles of your feet and the spaces between your toes.
  • Learn where your moles are and their usual look and feel. Check for anything different, such as:
    • a new mole that looks different from your other moles
    • a new red or darker-colored flaky patch that may be a little raised
    • a change in the size, shape, color or feel of a mole
    • a sore that doesn't heal
    • a new flesh-colored firm bump

Write down the dates of your skin self-exams and make notes about the way your skin looks on those dates. You might want to take photos to help monitor changes in moles over time. If you notice anything unusual, speak to your doctor.

Harvard Health Publications, March, 2017,

Skin Cancer Foundation, Updated Feb. 2, 2017,

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