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How to Do a Skin Cancer Self-Check

The words “skin cancer” are scary because we often associate all skin cancer with the often-deadly melanoma. But, most skin cancers—even some melanomas—are curable when diagnosed and treated early. But since you likely only see your primary care provider once a year for an annual physical, it is up to you to identify any suspicious skin lesions that may need to be checked sooner by a medical professional.

What You Need for a Self-Check

Self-checks for skin lesions should be done once a month. They are thorough inspections of your entire body, so you need some tools to help you see your back and other hard-to-view areas, including:

  • A full-length mirror
  • A hand-held mirror
  • Chair or stool

Self-checks should be done in a well-lit area, and you may want a second chair, stool or foot rest to prop your feet and/or legs during parts of the lower body examination.

Have a body map ready to mark the location and type of any skin lesion you discover. (Body maps are available from the Skin Cancer Foundation.)

Start at the Top

Start your self-check by carefully examining your face, especially your nose, lips and ears, as these are parts of the body that receive a lot of sun exposure and are often most vulnerable to burning.

Use the hand mirror to view the backs of your ears.

You will need to examine your entire scalp by using a hair dryer and comb to move your hair so that you can see the skin beneath. However, because it is difficult to see the top of your head, even with mirrors, we recommend having someone assist you with this part of the self-check.

Once you have documented any suspicious areas, move on to your upper and mid-body.

Upper and Mid Body

With the same care and attention, examine every inch of your upper and mid body. Parts that often go unchecked include:

  • Neck and the area below the chin
  • Underneath the breasts
  • Backs of hands, between fingers and beneath fingernails
  • Underarms

You will need the full-length mirror and hand mirror to check your back. Make sure long hair is tied up so that you can see the nape of your neck, your upper, mid and lower back as well as your sides.

Lower Body

Use the mirror to examine your lower posterior region, including:

  • Buttocks
  • Backs of your thighs
  • Genitals

Sit down and prop one leg up to examine your upper thighs and lower legs, ankles and feet. Be sure to look between your toes and beneath your toe nails for any discoloration and/or changes in skin texture.

Next Steps

In the event that you discover any suspicious skin lesion, there’s no reason to panic…just schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or dermatologist for another look. Even if your medical provider does not order any diagnostic testing or express concern, keep the body map so that you know what areas to keep your eye on so that you notice any changes.

And remember, you can help prevent the development of many types of skin lesions and signs of aging with adequate sun protection.

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