Checking for skin cancer

A regular head-to-toe self-exam can help detect early signs of skin cancer.

skin cancer checkAdequate sun protection when outside is the best way to protect against skin cancer. Yet, even if you are diligent about sunscreen, wear wide-brim hats and long-sleeve shirts, and stay in the shade whenever possible, it may not be enough.

You still need to look for early signs of skin cancer, so you can alert your doctor. A regular skin self-exam is the best way to do this. By checking your skin regularly, you'll learn what is normal for you and can more easily note skin changes and abnormalities that require attention.

Five-step skin cancer check

According to the Harvard Special Health Report Skin Care and Repair, the best time to check your skin is after a shower or bath. Use 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:

  1. Look at your face, neck, ears, and scalp. You may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move your hair so you can see better. It may be hard to check your scalp by yourself, so you have a relative or friend check through your hair.
  2. 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 (including the undersides), and upper arms.
  3. Check the back, front, and sides of your legs. Also check the skin all over your buttocks and genital area.
  4. Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, the soles of your feet, and the spaces between your toes.
  5. 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 may find it helpful to take photos to help check for changes over time. Again, if you notice anything unusual, consult your doctor.

Source: National Institutes of Health Senior Health

By Matthew Solan
Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch