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Skin Cancer Self Check & Diagnosis

Because of the prevalence of skin cancer, you should have your skin checked by a health care provider at least once a year, or twice a year if you have had a diagnosed skin cancer, and you should perform a self-check once a month.

The Skin Cancer Center recommends picking a specific day, like the first day of the month or your birthday, to check your skin each month.  The best time to do this exam is after a shower or bath. Use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror and make sure you have plenty of light. Begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles and other marks are and their usual look and feel.

Check for anything new:

  • A mole that looks different from your other moles
  • A red or darker color flaky patch that may be a little raised
  • A flesh-colored firm bump
  • A change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole
  • A sore that does not heal

Check yourself from head to toe:

  • Look at your face, neck, ears and scalp. You may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move your hair so that you can see better, or you may want to ask a relative or friend to check through your hair. It may be hard to check your scalp by yourself.
  • 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.
  • Examine the back, front and sides of your legs. Also look around your genital area and between your buttocks.
  • Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, your soles and the spaces between your toes.

By checking your skin regularly you will learn what is normal for you. It may help to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If your doctor has taken photos of your skin, you can compare your skin to the photos to help check for changes. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor.

Diagnosis

If you see something suspicious on self-exam, contact your health care provider right away for a diagnosis. 
The best way to definitively diagnose a skin cancer is to biopsy it, and there are three types of biopsies:

  • Shave biopsy - A small layer is shaved off the top of the abnormal growth.
  • Punch biopsy - A circle of tissue is removed from the abnormal area.  A punch biopsy is more invasive, but gives the pathologist a cross section of cells to examine.
  • Excisional biopsy - The doctor uses a scalpel to remove the entire growth and some tissue around it.  Some cancers are cured through excisional biopsy, however the margins are not checked; if it is cancerous, you won’t know if the entire cancer has been removed.

Biopsies are performed by family practice physicians, internal medicine doctors, dermatologists and surgeons.