How Do I Examine Myself for Skin Cancer?

Question: How am I supposed to examine myself for skin cancer, and when should I see a doctor about something on my skin?

Answer: I tell my patients that around age 40, you should go and see a dermatologist for the first time and have a full skin check. At that point, they can review with you anything that looks suspicious or worrisome so that you're aware of what to look for. When you do do a skin exam you want to stand in front of the mirror and go from the face down, looking at everything and seeing if its changed. You should do this maybe once every month to once every two months. Then you can turn around and look at your back in the mirror. Obviously if there's someone that's with you that can look at your back they can do that as well.

I also tell patients to have their barber or beauty stylist look in their hairs to see if there's anything in their scalp because skin cancer can develop there. If anything is changing, enlarging, bleeding, or doing what we call the ABCs where it becomes irregular, it has an irregular border or an irregular color, then that's when you want to see a physician. And I also say anything that worries you should see a physician, because you'd rather be told that something's benign than have something be malignant and not have it checked.

Michel McDonald, M.D., Vanderbilt University Medical Center
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