Hello, May! May is a very popular month in the dermatology world – it’s Skin Cancer Awareness month. 

Skin cancer is the number one form of cancer in the United States and the world. We want to change this by empowering you to take control and advocate for your health.

I’m currently in my Dermatopathology Fellowship. A dermatopathologist is a highly-trained physician who specializes in diagnosing skin disorders under a microscope. So, I spend my days looking at biopsies including examining biopsies for skin cancer.

However, there are ways to detect skin cancer before it gets to the point where I’m looking at it under a microscope. That’s what I’m going to share with you today. First I’ll dive into what exactly causes skin cancer, and then I’ll share my top two ways you can examine your skin.

What Causes Skin Cancer

Skin cancer (specifically a skin cancer called melanoma I’ll explain) is on the top 10 list of common cancer types. In fact, 20% of Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they reach 70 years old. What exactly causes this common cancer? There are a number of factors, but below are three prevalent causes.

1. Exposure to Natural UV Rays

Skin cancer is caused by a number of things, but the number one risk factor is exposure to natural UV rays. This can be through sun exposure or through exposure to artificial UV light from lamps, like the ones used in tanning beds. UV light can increase your risk of a benign mole progressing to a cancerous tumor. 

One form of cancer that’s formed due to UV light is melanoma. Melanoma seems to be the most well-known type of skin cancer, and for good reason – it’s the most dangerous and the deadliest form. However, melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers. If your melanocytes (your special cells that make melanin to give your skin its color) become cancerous, you’ll develop melanoma.

Now, what about the most commonly diagnosed skin cancer?

That’s basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – it looks like a skin-colored bump or pinkish patch on your skin and frequently develops in fair-skinned individuals. It’s caused mainly by years of frequent sun exposure. 

 

2. Your Past Lifestyle

Your lifestyle when you were younger (even as young as a teenager) can also influence your risk of skin cancer. Research shows that if you experienced five or more blistering sunburns when you were 15-20 years old, you increase your risk of melanoma by 80%. And if you used tanning beds frequently when you were 45 years old or younger, you also increased your risk of melanoma.

 

3. Your Genetics

Lastly, a big factor that can contribute to skin cancer is your genetics. For example, there are key genes responsible for inherited melanoma. About 5-10% of melanoma cases are inherited. 

 

With all these factors that can increase your chances of skin cancer, it’s crucial to detect it as early as possible. Let’s dive into how to do just that.

2 Tips for Detecting Skin Cancer

When it comes to cancer, it’s best to detect it early. This way we can prevent the cancer from spreading to other organ systems through treatment or other interventions. Here are my top 2 tips that you can easily implement into your monthly and yearly routines. Let’s educate and empower you to take a stand for your skin health!

 

1. Do a Self-Examination Once a Month

Just like your primary doctor recommends that you examine your breasts for lumps and bumps, I recommend that you also examine your skin at least once a month. There’s an “ABCDE rule” that can help you look for signs of melanoma. 

The “ABCDE rule” stands for aspects of moles that you should look out for:

  • Asymmetry: Your mole or birthmark is asymmetrical and doesn’t match the other side. 
  • Border: The border of your mole is irregular or blurred.
  • Color: The color of your mole isn’t the same as other parts of the mole. Other colors that may appear that you should show your doctor include brown, black, pink, red, white, or blue.
  • Diameter: The mole is larger than 6 mm.
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in shape and size.

When doing a self-examination, you can start with these guidelines. If you notice anything irregular, bring it up to your dermatologist. Remember, there are no such things as embarrassing questions when it comes to your health. It’s always best to ask questions because we want to be sure to catch abnormalities early. 

So, remember your ABCDE’s and don’t be shy when bringing up concerns to your dermatologist.

 

2. Visit Your Dermatologist Annually

I recommend that my patients see their dermatologist at least once a year, especially if they’re at a higher risk for skin cancer. To prepare for your visit, be sure to point out any abnormalities you may have seen during your self-examination.

Also, dermatologists can detect abnormalities in your skin and hair so be sure to remove nail polish and wear your hair down or in a loose ponytail. Your scalp is skin too and should be examined for skin cancers. Remove your make-up so that your doctor can observe moles and your overall skin appearance.

These two tips are easy for everyone to do to prevent you from getting a skin cancer diagnosis. Or they could help you catch a developing cancer early to help you have the best possible outcome.

Let’s Prevent Skin Cancer

The best thing to do is educate yourself on preventing skin cancer! These two tips provide you a good foundation for examining your skin and seeing your dermatologist. 

Interested in learning about the ways I protect myself from the sun’s damaging UV rays? Check out my blog post on my favorite sun protection tips.

Share this post with your family and loved ones so they can also take charge of their health. If you want to learn more about skin health and skin care routines, be sure to check out my podcast. Tag me so I know what episode you’re listening to and I can feature you on my Instagram stories.

Keep glowing,

Dr. Nikoleta