As the season of sandcastles, swimming, and sunburns approaches, I think this is a good time to remind people about skin cancer (you can always rely on your doctor to take the fun out of everything, right?). There are different types of skin cancer, but the deadliest is melanoma. You are at higher risk of melanoma and other skin cancers if you have fair skin, burn easily, have had a least one blistering sunburn, and/or have a family history of skin cancer. Remember, however, that even people with no risk factors can get skin cancer.
The first step in melanoma prevention is obviously protection from the sun. Even if most people don’t follow current recommendations, they are aware of the basics on sunscreen and sun avoidance. The second step is early detection. Many people are not aware of the features that make a mole concerning. Medical students learn an easy mnemonic for the evaluation of moles. You can learn it as well, and begin doing self skin exams. At least once a year you should get naked, stand in front of a mirror in some good light, and check out your skin. Don’t forget to really scrutinize your back and the backs of your legs. These are common areas for melanoma to develop because people can go months or even years without ever looking at these areas of their skin. Once you’re ready, it’s as simple as ABCDE . . . .
- A is for Asymmetry. A concerning mole will be asymmetric, meaning one side is darker or shaped very differently than the other. A benign mole will usually be mostly round, and all the same color.
- B is for Border. Irregular borders are worrisome. . Remember looking at pictures of amoeba in junior high science class? If you have a mole shaped like one of those little creatures, or one that has a portion that seems to be creeping out into the surrounding skin, this mole needs to be evaluated.
- C is for Color. A darker-colored mole is more likely to be melanoma, particularly if it is the only mole on your body that is very dark. Compare the color of your moles. If one sticks out as being much darker than the others, it’s time to see your doctor.
- D is for Diameter. Any mole greater than 5 mm (about the size of the head of a pencil eraser) may be cause for concern.
- E is for Evolution. Once a mole appears, it should not change in size, color, or character. If you notice a mole is getting darker, bigger, becoming more irregular, irritated, or bleeding, it should be evaluated by a physician.
If there is any question, just go get it checked out. Your family doctor can evaluate all skin lesions and then refer if necessary, so there is no need to wait 3-4 months to get in with a dermatologist. You can even ask your doctor to do a full skin exam as part of your routine physical. This is my standard practice with patients, and always a good idea even if you are checking your skin regularly at home. So enjoy summer, protect yourself from the sun, and check your skin–just remember ABCDE!
Shari S. Phillips, M.D.
Your Lake Norman Physician