The Skin Cancer Self-Exam

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 26, 2021

Each year, more than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer. Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, is the deadliest form and its incidence is rising faster than any other cancer.

But surviving even this deadly type of skin cancer is possible. In fact, there's a 99% survival rate when the disease is found in its earliest stages. And one of the best ways to ensure that happens is with a skin cancer self-exam. By checking your skin every month for irregularities that might be signs of early cancer, and bringing those changes to your doctor's attention, you can play a key role in protecting your life.

What should you be looking for? Any spot or marking that is new, or one that changes in size, shape, feel, or color. You should also be aware of any unusual sore, lump, or blemish, or any change in how skin looks and feels -- particularly any crusting, oozing, or bleeding, as well as itching, tenderness, or pain.

More than likely, you'll discover some moles, but don't be alarmed. Normal moles are even in color (black, brown, or tan), and they can be flat or raised, round, or oval.

An abnormal mole is one that is irregularly shaped, has a jagged, not smooth, border, and a mosaic-like color with a mixture of red, white, and/or blue (called the "flag sign") or various shades of brown.

How to Do a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

You should do a skin cancer self-exam about once a month. Just before or after a shower is probably a good time. You will need a full-length mirror and a hand mirror with a good light source. A blow dryer may help in examining your scalp. A partner to help you look at your scalp and back is very valuable, and a second pair of eyes may detect changes in existing moles or new moles more quickly than yourself.

Here are the five easy steps:

  1. Take off your clothes and stand facing the full-length mirror. Check your face, neck, chest, shoulders, and arms, as well as under each arm, and look down the fronts of the thighs and calves.
  2. Bend your elbows and examine your forearms and the backs and palms of your hands, your fingers on all sides and your fingernails.
  3. Grab the hand mirror and check your back and sides of your body, the backs of your legs, and the bottom of your feet. Also, be sure to check between the toes, sides of the toes, and toenails.
  4. Still using the hand mirror, check the back of your neck. Part your hair -- and if necessary, use a blow dryer to move it around -- and check not only your scalp, but the area around and behind each ear.
  5. Finally, use the hand mirror to examine your buttocks, genitalia, and lower back.

Show Sources

American Cancer Society web site.

American Academy of Dermatology web site. 

Skin Cancer Foundation web site.

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