I always see many more skin cancers in the late summer and fall. It happens every year in my dermatology practice – for 30 years, a deluge of skin cancers show up every fall, to the surprise of my patients. We prepare our schedule for it.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, get your skin examined now. If there is a cancer found on your skin, it will be caught earlier than if you wait. Schedule a full exam and get your doctor (dermatologist preferably) to look you over carefully – everywhere. Even if you sun protected your skin carefully, you can’t be perfect. Sun gets through fabric, bounces off of surfaces and into your shade-protected areas, and then starts mutating your DNA. Yes, I do have patients who really are pros at keeping 100% of the UV off of their skin such that I don’t see even the slightest darkening of a freckle or faint tan line anywhere (even the scalp), but most of us are not so diligent. Get your exam on the books for this fall with your doctor.
I also want you to know what to look for on your own skin, and to bring a list to your doctor’s appointment of the spots that concern you. Here is what to look for and what you want to know:
There are 2 basic families of skin cancers: the melanoma cancers and the non-melanoma cancers.
1. Melanoma is the cancer of mole cells. These cancers are often brown, though not always. We teach patients to look for the A, B, C, D, & E signs of melanoma which is outlined in the below infographic.
Melanoma in situ on cheek.
2. Non-melanoma skin cancers come from the cells that make up the top of your hide (skin) called the keratinocytes. These cells can start going ‘mutant’ as a precancerous actinic keratosis or go fully ‘rogue’ as a squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma. General signs we teach people to look for are a sore that fails to heal, a rough patch that doesn’t go away, or something that just doesn’t match your other ‘normal’ spots.
Actinic keratosis on top of head.
Understand that skin cancer can happen on any part of the skin. We see the non-melanoma cancers more commonly on the areas of high cumulative sun exposure such as the head and neck, back of the arms and hands, and for those that are highly sun exposed, on the trunk and legs too. Melanoma happens anywhere, especially where you have been sunburned.
Family history and skin color play into your risk for all skin cancers. Redheads are very, very prone. The fairer your skin the higher the risk. Having family members with skin cancer, especially melanoma, puts you at higher risk too. Tanning bed use puts you at higher risk.
The bottom line is that it’s skin cancer season. Get your full exam now. When you catch skin cancer early it may well be just a minor inconvenience, but when you catch it late the story can change.