Melanoma can spread quickly to other organs, and it causes the vast majority of skin cancer deaths in the United States. So it’s especially important to detect this type of skin cancer early, when treatment is most likely to be successful.
The five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma has not spread is expected to be 98 percent. Once it has spread, the survival rate drops significantly, especially if cancer has reached distant parts of the body.
How to check for skin cancer
Most melanomas that appear in the skin can be seen with the naked eye. The best way to find early warning signs of skin cancer is to examine your skin.
- Give yourself a good head-to-toe skin examination once a month.
- When you check your body, get to know your mole patterns, freckles and other markings on your skin, and note them on a paper body chart. This will help you notice changes over time.
- Some parts of your body may be difficult for you to see, like your lower back, the backs of your thighs and your scalp. Ask your spouse, partner or a good friend to help you.
Follow the “ABCDE” guide
Most of us have some brownish spots on our skin — freckles, birthmarks and moles. Most of these spots are normal, but some may be precancerous or skin cancer.
Common moles and melanomas do not look alike. Here’s what to look for during your monthly self-exams.
A = Asymmetry
Common moles are symmetrical. This means that if you draw a line down the center of a mole, the two halves will look the same. Early melanomas are asymmetrical (not symmetrical).
B = Border
Early melanomas often have uneven borders. They may even have scalloped or notched edges.
C = Color
Common moles are usually a single shade of brown or black. Early melanomas are often varied shades of brown, tan or black. As they progress, red, white and blue may appear.
D = Diameter
The diameter is the width of a circle across its center. The diameter of a melanoma is usually larger than a mole, though it can be smaller. Early melanomas generally grow to at least the size of a pencil eraser (about ¼-inch across).
E = Evolution
Changes not otherwise described above.
Other Changes to Look For
Other changes in your moles that you should be aware of include:
- Sensation — Itching is the most common early symptom. Skin cancers are usually painless, but there can be tenderness and pain.
- Size — A mole is suddenly bigger or continues to get bigger.
- Spreading color — Melanomas can be a variety of colors, and the color may spread from the edge into the surrounding tissue.
- Elevation — A flat or slightly raised mole grows higher very quickly.
- Surrounding skin — The skin around a mole becomes red or develops colored blemishes or swelling.
- Surface — A mole's surface changes from smooth to scaly, eroding and oozing. A crusty, ulcerated or bleeding mole is a sign of advanced disease.
If any of these changes or symptoms appears, make an appointment with your doctor right away. A dermatologist specially trained in skin cancer should be able to recognize a melanoma at its earliest stage.
See your doctor for a screening exam
Even if you don’t notice any warning signs of cancer, it’s important to see your doctor regularly for skin checks to help detect cancer early, increasing the positive results of treatment. Ask your doctor about the right frequency for you.
If your doctor finds something of concern, he or she will order diagnostic tests to rule out or identify skin cancer.
The skin cancer signs and symptoms page covers each major type of skin cancer, where it is usually found and what it looks like, including more photos.
Images courtesy of the Melanoma Research Foundation.