How to spot skin cancer? Check your moles for changes monthly.

Fifty-two percent of Americans say they never go to a doctor to have their skin checked, according to a Consumer Reports’ nationally representative survey of 2,007 American adults. That suggests that we have plenty of opportunity to improve skin cancer survival rates in the U.S. 

But whether everyone needs an exam every single year is a bit of a controversy. Many dermatologists recommend them. Certainly people with a personal or family history of melanoma (parent, sibling, or grandparent) or lots of moles (50 or more) may need skin checks more often.

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Between doctor’s appointments, doing self-checks once a month is also recommended because spotting a suspicious mole promptly can save your life. “Early stage melanoma has a 98 percent five-year survival rate,” says Rebecca Hartman, M.D., director of melanoma epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. When caught in time, the only treatment usually needed is removing the cancerous spot and the area of skin surrounding it so that no cancer cells are left behind.

Becoming familiar with the moles, freckles, and other spots on your skin gives you the best chance of noticing whether something has changed. Be sure to check the parts of your body that get little sun exposure, such as under fingernails and toenails, and on palms, lower legs, and the bottoms of the feet. Skin cancer may occur in these areas, too, especially in Blacks.

When examining your skin, Hartman says, “I tell my patients to be on the lookout for the ugly duckling. If a spot or patch of skin stands out because it doesn’t look like other spots, you should bring it to your dermatologist’s attention.”

The illustrations below outline the general warning signs to look for. However, it’s important to understand that “different people with different skin tones can get skin cancers that look different,” says Jenna Lester, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Skin of Color Program at the University of California, San Francisco.

For example, basal cell carcinomas are often described as how they appear in white people, as having a pearly luster and being red or white. But in people of color, those growths may still have a pearly luster but be darker, even darker than their normal skin. The lesson? “Just because what you see on your skin doesn’t look like what they show in pamphlets, in textbooks, or on Google image searches, doesn’t mean that it is not something to be concerned about,” Lester says. “It could just mean that there is an underrepresentation of your skin tone. Always ask your doctor if you notice something unusual on your skin.”

How to recognize concerning spots
symmetrical
A symetrical mole is a normal mole.
asymmetrical
May be cause for concern. An asymmetrical shape (half of the mole doesn’t look like the other half).
irregular border
Also look for a border that’s irregular or not well defined which be cause for concern.
uneven color
Color that’s uneven should also be checked by a physician.
Other concerns (not shown) are any new mole, or one that changes in size or color over weeks or months or has a diameter bigger than a pencil eraser.

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Editor’s Note: This article, originally published June 4, 2020, was updated to expand the information on skin cancer risk in people with a variety of skin tones. A version of this article also appeared in the July 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.