What is a skin cancer screening?
A skin cancer screening is a visual exam of the skin that can be done by yourself or a health care provider. The screening checks the skin for moles, birthmarks, or other marks that are unusual in color, size, shape, or texture. Certain unusual marks may be signs of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. These cancers rarely spread to other parts of the body and are usually curable with treatment. A third type of skin cancer is called melanoma. Melanoma is less common than the other two, but more dangerous because it’s more likely to spread. Most skin cancer deaths are caused by melanoma.
A skin cancer screening can help find cancer in its earlier stages when it’s easier to treat.
Other names: skin exam
What is it used for?
A skin cancer screening is used to look for signs of skin cancer. It is not used to diagnose cancer. If skin cancer is suspected after a screening, a test called a biopsy will be needed to find out whether you have cancer.
Why do I need a skin cancer screening?
You may need a skin cancer screening if you have certain risk factors. Risk factors for skin cancer include having:
- Light skin tone
- Blond or red hair
- Light colored eyes (blue or green)
- Skin that burns and/or freckles easily
- History of sunburns
- Family and/or personal history of skin cancer
- Frequent exposure to the sun through work or leisure activities
- Large number of moles
Talk to your health provider about whether you should regularly screen yourself, get screened at a provider’s office, or do both.
If you are screening yourself, you may need to get screened by a health care provider if you find signs of skin cancer during a self-exam. Signs vary depending on the type of skin cancer, but they may include a:
- Change in an existing mole or spot
- Mole or other skin mark that oozes, bleeds, or becomes crusty
- Mole that is painful to the touch
- Sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks
- Shiny pink, red, pearly white, or translucent bump
- Mole or sore with irregular borders, that may bleed easily
If you are screening yourself, be sure to check for signs of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. An easy way to remember the signs of melanoma is to think of “ABCDE,” which stands for:
- Asymmetry: The mole has an odd shape, with half of it not matching the other half.
- Border: The border of the mole is ragged or irregular.
- Color: The color of the mole is uneven.
- Diameter: The mole is bigger than the size of a pea or a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: The mole has changed in size, shape, or color.
If you find signs of melanoma, talk to your health care provider as soon as possible.
What happens during a skin cancer screening?
Skin cancer screenings may be done by yourself, your primary care provider, or a dermatologist. A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in disorders of the skin.
If you are screening yourself, you will need to do a head-to-toe exam of your skin. The exam should be done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. You’ll also need a hand mirror to check areas that are hard to see. The exam should include the following steps:
- Stand in front of the mirror and look at your face, neck, and stomach.
- Women should look under their breasts.
- Raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
- Look at the front and back of your forearms.
- Look at your hands, including between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Look at the front, back, and sides of your legs.
- Sit down and examine your feet, checking the soles and the spaces between the toes. Also check the nail beds of each toe.
- Check your back, buttocks, and genitals with the hand mirror.
- Part your hair and examine your scalp. Use a comb or a hair dryer along with a hand mirror to help you see better.
If you are getting screened by a dermatologist or other health care provider, it may include the follow steps:
- You will remove all your clothing. But you can wear a gown. If you are uncomfortable being undressed in front of your provider, you can ask to have a nurse in the room with you during the exam.
- Your provider will give you a head-to-toe exam, including your scalp, behind your ears, fingers, toes, buttocks, and genitals. The exam may be embarrassing, but it’s important to get checked, as skin cancer can occur anywhere on your skin.
- Your provider may use a special magnifying glass with a light to look at certain marks.
The exam should take 10-15 minutes.
Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?
You should not wear makeup or nail polish. Be sure to wear your hair loose, so your provider can examine your scalp. There are no other special preparations needed.
Are there any risks to the test?
There are no risks to having a skin cancer screening.
What do the results mean?
If a mole or other mark on your skin looks like it might be a sign of cancer, your provider will probably order another test, called a skin biopsy, to make a diagnosis. A skin biopsy is a procedure that removes a small sample of skin for testing. The skin sample is looked at under a microscope to check for cancer cells. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, you can begin treatment. Finding and treating cancer early may help prevent the disease from spreading.
Is there anything else I need to know about a skin cancer screening?
Exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays that come from the sun plays a major role in causing skin cancer. You are exposed to these rays anytime you are out in the sun, not just when you are at the beach or pool. But you can limit your sun exposure and help reduce your risk of skin cancer if you take a few simple precautions when out in the sun. These include:
- Using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30
- Seeking shade when possible
- Wearing a hat and sunglasses
Sunbathing also increases your risk of skin cancer. You should avoid outdoor sunbathing and never use an indoor tanning salon. There is no safe amount of exposure to artificial tanning beds, sunlamps, or other artificial tanning devices.
If you have questions about reducing your risk of skin cancer, talk to your health care provider.