Skin Cancer Self-Exam

Skin Cancer Self Exam 5-21-2014

By: Dr. Jaynie Bjornaraa PhD, MPH, PT

May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Now is a good time to talk about how to check your skin for signs of skin cancer. And it’s always good to brush-up on how to protect your skin from the sun.


You’ve likely heard about skin cancer. But did you know that it’s the most common form of cancer in the United States? In fact, one in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lifetime. You may know someone who’s had skin cancer. Or you may even have had it yourself. There are 3 main types:

  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma, and
  • Melanoma


Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer. BCCs are growths that occur in your skin’s basal cells. They don’t often spread to other parts of the body, which is good. But if they aren’t treated, they can continue to grow in size and become dangerous. Here’s what to look for:

  • An open sore that doesn’t heal
  • A patch of skin that’s red and irritated
  • A shiny bump that can be pink, red, white, tan, black, or brown
  • A pink growth with raised borders
  • An area that looks like a scar


Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer. SCCs are growths that occur in your skin’s squamous cells. Like BCCs, they don’t often spread to other parts of the body. But if they aren’t caught, they can grow to be quite large and become dangerous. Here’s what to look for:

  • A scaly patch that’s red and that bleeds at times
  • A growth with raised borders that is sunken in the center
  • An open sore that bleeds and doesn’t heal
  • A growth that looks like a wart that crusts and bleeds


Melanoma, while not the most common, is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. If not caught early, it can spread to other parts of the body. But if it’s caught early, it can be treated and it is very curable. Melanomas look like moles, and may develop from moles. So look at any moles you may have, or other spots on your skin. While most moles are benign, some may not be. As for what to look for, just remember your ABCDEs:


  • A stands for asymmetry. Check to see if one half looks different than the other half.
  • B stands for border. Look at the border. Is it uneven or rough? Look to see if the edges are jagged rather than smooth.
  • C stands for color. The color of most melanomas is usually brown or black. But it can also be pink or red, white or tan, or even blue. One part may also be darker than the other. So look for any differences in color.
  • D stands for diameter. Most melanomas are larger than 6 millimeters. That’s roughly the size of a pencil eraser. But smaller moles may also be melanomas.
  • E stands for evolving. Keep an eye on your moles to see if they start to change in terms of size, shape, or color. They may also become more raised. Do you notice any other changes, perhaps bleeding or itching?


In order to catch it early, it’s best to check your skin often for any of these signs of skin cancer. Talk to your doctor right away if you notice any of these signs. You may also want to visit the website of the American Academy of Dermatology. You can download a body mole map to help you keep track of your moles. And the website also has helpful tips on how to perform a self-exam.


And, as I mentioned in an early post, prevention is best! It’s far better to prevent skin cancer rather than to treat it. So follow these tips to protect your skin from the sun.

  • Try not to spend a lot of time outside between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. That’s when the sun is strongest. If you are outdoors during that time, stick to the shade.
  • Dress for the weather. Wear long sleeves and pants in lightweight fabrics. Certain companies even sell clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating. This can help you see which fabrics can best protect your from the sun’s rays. The higher the rating, the more protection the fabric offers. Sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat can protect your eyes and your face.
  • Make sure to wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50. Make sure it’s a broad-spectrum sunscreen. That means it provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. And remember that sweat and water can cause sunscreen to wear off. So reapply often.
  • Water, snow, and sand can reflect and strengthen the sun’s rays. So whether you’re water skiing or snow skiing, you need to protect your skin.
  • Finally, don’t use tanning beds. The UV light used in tanning beds can cause skin cancer.