You get your eyes checked regularly and your teeth cleaned like clockwork. You know the importance of keeping tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure. But what have you done lately for your body’s largest organ? Your skin needs love, too!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer ranks as the most common type of cancer in the U.S. Most skin cancer is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet rays, which can come from tanning beds, sun lamps and the sun itself. Just five or more sunburns can actually double your risk of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and one in five Americans will have skin cancer by the time they’re 70.
Skin cancer is potentially deadly, taking two lives per hour in the United States. But if caught early, it’s usually treatable—early detection of melanoma sees a survival rate of 99 percent. That’s why it’s important to see a dermatologist annually and request a full-body skin check and skin cancer screening during the appointment. If you’re at high risk for melanoma, you may want to have those checks more often.
Those most at risk of skin cancer, according to the CDC, include people with lighter skin that’s prone to burning and/or freckles; people with blue or green eyes and/or blonde or red hair; people with a lot of moles, or certain types of moles; older adults; and people with a history of skin cancer for themselves or within their family.
However, people of all skin tones can get melanoma and should make an appointment for a screening. For those with darker complexions, problems are often diagnosed later, which makes treatment more challenging.
Here’s what to expect—and how to prepare—for your skin check appointment.
1. Note any concerns you wish to discuss
If you have any spots that prompted you to make the appointment, mention those to your dermatologist. In particular, keep an eye out for new moles and moles that have changed in size, shape or color; moles that bleed or don’t heal; moles that are asymmetrical or have borders that are irregular; and moles that are larger in diameter than a pencil eraser. If you have photos of the changes you’ve seen, be sure and share those, too.
2. Understand what they’re looking for
There are three common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Each is named for the layer of the skin it starts in:
Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the flat squamous cells on the top layer of the skin.
- Basal cell carcinoma begins in the basal layer, which consists of round cells under the squamous cells.
Both of these are usually highly treatable, although treatment can be expensive and leave behind scars and disfigurement.
- Melanoma begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that make up the lower layer of the epidermis. This type of skin cancer is the most dangerous because of its tendency to spread to other organs.
3. Remove makeup, jewelry, nail polish, and clothing
Your dermatologist will conduct a thorough exam of your body, from the top of your scalp to the bottoms of your feet, and everything in between. To make it easier for them, prepare to disrobe, and avoid wearing makeup, jewelry, and nail polish. Every inch of skin, including earlobes and toes, will get checked for suspicious spots, new or changing moles, and other potential warning signs.
4. Expect quick action
If your doctor identifies a spot that could potentially be cancerous, they’ll usually act right away and remove part of the area, or all of the area, for biopsy. They’ll send it to a lab for tests, and then alert you to what they find and schedule additional appointments if further follow-up is needed.
5. Ask questions
You’re in the midst of an expert, use the appointment to ask any and all skin-related questions. Your dermatologist can share the latest recommendations on skin care and sun protection and make suggestions on products that are best for your skin type. They can also share tips on how to monitor your epidermis for any potential concerns.
And of course, don’t forget the most important question of all: ask when you should return for your next full-body skin check. so you can continue giving your largest organ the TLC it deserves.