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Man looking in the mirror performing a skin cancer self-exam

The Big See: Early Skin Cancer Detection

Did you know that in the United States, two people die of skin cancer every hour?

During May, the Skin Cancer Foundation is promoting skin cancer awareness. The Foundation’s 2020 campaign, called The Big See, encourages skin self-exams to help people discover skin cancer early. With early treatment, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99%! This month, we’re sharing the steps to an effective skin self-exam, as well as important skin cancer prevention strategies.


The truth about skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the US. In fact, there are more new cases of skin cancer each year than every other type of cancer combined. Many, but not all incidents are preventable, which is why awareness is so essential in the fight against skin cancer.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation:

  • At least 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70.
  • Approximately 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with lifetime exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
  • Daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces a person’s risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40%!
  • Between 2010 and 2020, the number of new invasive melanoma cases (those that spread beyond the epidermis) diagnosed annually increased by 47%.
  • A person who has tanned indoors faces an 83% greater chance of developing SCC than a person who has not. Also, people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75%.


What are you looking for during the exam?

When you perform your skin self-exam, you should look for anything that is:

  1. NEW – any new spots or moles, especially if they appear after age 21, could be a sign of cancer.
  2. CHANGING – a leopard never changes its spots, and neither should you! If moles or spots on your skin have changed in size, shape, color, or texture, it could be a sign of cancer.
  3. UNUSUAL – if there’s a spot that’s different from everything else on your skin, called the “ugly duckling sign,” or if it has an unusual outline, itches, hurts, crusts, or bleeds for over three weeks, it could be a warning sign of cancer.

If you see anything on your skin that you suspect is NEW, CHANGING, or UNUSUAL, then you should schedule an appointment with your dermatologist right away. If you don’t notice anything suspicious, then you can mark your calendar or reset your digital reminder for one month later.

Tip for the ladies: Do your skin self-exam on the same day that you do your monthly breast self-exam so that you never forget either of them!


Performing a skin self-exam

Since early detection is essential to successfully treating skin cancer, you should check your skin thoroughly each month. If you’ve already had skin cancer or have risk factors for it, you should also schedule a yearly appointment with your dermatologist for a professional skin exam.

So, how do you perform a skin self-exam? It’s easy! A large mirror and a hand mirror are helpful if you’re alone, or you can ask a loved one to assist you with parts of your body that are difficult to see on your own. Then, follow these eight easy steps:


1. Begin with your face

The lips, nose, mouth, and ears (both front and back!) get a lot of UV exposure, so they’re common areas to develop skin cancers of all kinds. Use both of your mirrors to check your skin carefully.


2. Check your scalp

Checking your scalp can be tricky, so it’s helpful to have someone else look it over for you. If no one is available to help you, grab your hand mirror and a blow dryer. You can use the blow dryer to help move your hair around so you can see your entire scalp.


3. Examine your hands

We often forget to apply sunscreen to the backs of our hands, so it’s a very common place to develop basal and squamous cell carcinomas. Luckily, checking your hands is easy! Look over the palms of your hands, as well as the backs. Don’t forget to look at your nail beds for any changes because cancer can develop there. Continue to check up your wrists and forearms.


4. Scan your arms

A stationary mirror is helpful for this step. Stand in front of the mirror with your shirt off. Start at the elbows and scan the fronts and sides of your arms. Don’t forget to lift your arms and check your pits too!


5. Inspect your torso

For this step, focus on the front of your neck, your chest, and your stomach. Women should also lift their breasts and check the skin underneath.


6. Check your upper back

Use your hand mirror to check the tops of your shoulders, the back of your neck, your upper back, and any area on your upper arms that was difficult to see in Step 4.


7. Inspect your lower back

Continue Step 6 by scanning your lower back, your buttocks, and the back sides of your thighs.


8. Examine your legs

This final step is easiest to do while seated. You can lift your legs one at a time and place them on a stool or second chair, if necessary. Use your hand mirror to check your upper thigh on both sides and your genitals (yes, you can get skin cancer anywhere!). Then, check the fronts of your legs from your upper thighs to your ankles. Don’t forget to look at the tops of your feet and your toenail beds. Finish your self-exam by looking at the soles of your feet and your heels.


Tips for preventing skin cancer

Early detection is a great way to reduce the impact of skin cancer, but taking steps to lower your UV exposure, which lowers your risk for skin cancer, is even better. Try the following strategies to protect your skin:

  • Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, even if you’ll be indoors because UV rays can still pass through most windows.
    • The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping children six months old or younger out of the sun entirely as their skin is too sensitive for sunscreen.
  • Reapply your sunscreen every two hours when you’re outside, but more often if you’re swimming or sweating excessively. Check the specific instructions on your sunscreen bottle since each brand is different.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the backs of your hands, especially after washing them.
  • Wear a lip balm with SPF.
  • Never use a tanning bed! Believe it or not, the UV rays inside a tanning bed are even stronger than the rays you get from the sun.
  • Try to avoid being outside from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  • When you’re outside, wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeves and pants that have a UV protective factor (UPF) of 50 or more. You should also wear a broad-brimmed hat that covers your face, ears, and neck, plus UV blocking eye wear.


See the “Big C”

If you notice a change on your skin and you’re not sure whether it’s normal, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist. It’s better to be abundantly cautious than it is to overlook a cancerous spot. If you haven’t seen your dermatologist for your 2020 skin exam, get in touch with our office to get your appointment on the books.


Cumberland Skin Surgery and Dermatology provides comprehensive general dermatology, skin cancer surgery, and cosmetic dermatology solutions for patients throughout the Southeast. We have offices in Hermitage, Lebanon, Brentwood, and Hendersonville, Tennessee. To schedule an appointment, give us a call today at 615-257-7128.


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