The elementary tools to prevent melanoma
You may have thought your days of telling the Ugly Duckling story and the singing the ABCs were behind you. But when it comes to protecting yourself and your family from skin cancers like melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—it looks like your elementary school days are here to stay.
“Melanoma is a type of cancer that affects the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that colors your skin, hair and eyes,” says Dr. Deepti Singh, a medical oncologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’sCancer Institute in Chicago.
“More than half of all melanomas are originally detected by patients or their loved ones, not their doctors,” adds Dr. Singh. “Melanomas are easier to treat if caught early, so performing regular self-exams is extremely important.”
But what does the Ugly Duckling have to do with melanoma and skin cancer prevention? Dr. Singh shares what she wants her patients to look for when performing self-exams. The Ugly Duckling and the ABCs are two tools patients can use during self-exams to check for irregular moles or spots on their skin, she says.
Don’t duck away from self-exams
Many people have birthmarks, freckles and moles that are completely harmless throughout their body. In general, the spots on one person’s body tend to resemble each other when it comes to color, size and shape. Marks that stand out from the others could be a warning sign, Dr. Singh says.
“When examining your skin, you should always look for the spots that seem out of place—we call them Ugly Ducklings,” she says. “These outlying moles look like they don’t belong. Perhaps they are not near other marks on your body, or they are a different color or size.”
ABC is easy as 1, 2, 3
When looking at these out-of-place moles or birthmarks, there are five characteristics you need to look for, says Dr. Singh.
Asymmetry: “A normal mole should be symmetrical,” she says. “If you were to draw a line through the middle of the mole, both sides should look the same.”
Border: Any birthmark with uneven boarders should grab your attention. Uneven boarders may be jagged, scalloped or notched.
Color: “Multicolored spots can be another warning sign,” Dr. Singh says. “Moles can have multiple shades of brown, black or tan. Some melanomas may even become red, blue or another color.”
Diameter: Most melanoma spots are about 6 mm, the size of a pencil eraser, so watch out for larger moles. But that doesn’t mean all small spots are safe. Dr. Singh has seen patients detect melanomas at a smaller size, as well. That’s why it’s important to consider all these characteristics.
Evolving: “Any changes to size, shape or color in a mole are major warning signs,” Dr. Singh says. “In addition, watch out for moles that begin bleeding, itching or crusting.”
Signs of skin cancer are different for everyone, but if any spot or mole causes concern, make an appointment with your doctor to have it checked, she says.
Dr. Singh suggests everyone, regardless of their skin type, take a long, hard look at their skin every month.
“Early detection is key when fighting any type of cancer,” she says. “You know your skin better than anyone. Give yourself that time to look at your skin and notice any changes that may have taken place,” she says. “Now is the time to give your skin that extra attention so you can prevent cancer from striking in the future.”
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.