Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the melanocytes, a type of cell that produces the skin pigment known as melanin. Although only making up 1% of all skin cancers, melanoma accounts for over 80% of skin cancer deaths–that’s because melanoma can rapidly spread to other organs if not treated early. (9) In 2022, it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States, as well as 9,000 new cases in Canada. (4)(5) Rates of melanoma have rapidly increased over the last several decades. In fact, the incidences in the United States jumped by over 320% between 1975 and 2018. (9)
Early detection of melanoma is key, as this form of skin cancer is most effectively addressed in the early stages. (8) Keep reading to learn more about detecting melanoma through self-exams.
Melanoma risk factors
Are you at risk for melanoma? Understanding your risk factors can help you and your healthcare provider detect skin cancer early when it’s typically most treatable. Risk factors for melanoma include:
- Being male
- Family history of melanoma
- Having blonde or red hair
- Having fair skin and freckling
- Having many moles or atypical moles
- Older age
- Personal history of skin cancer
- Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from the sun or tanning beds
- Weakened immune system (e.g., organ transplant recipients, individuals with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV))
- Xeroderma pigmentosum (rare, heritable condition causing extreme sun sensitivity) (3)
Did you know? Although melanoma is most common in older adults, it is one of the most common cancers affecting people younger than 30. (3)
Sun exposure and skin cancer
Skin damage caused by UV exposure is the most significant contributor to skin cancers like melanoma. The good news is that limiting your sun exposure and avoiding tanning beds can help reduce your chances of developing skin cancer. (6) Practice sun safety by:
- Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with protection against UVB and UVA rays and an SPF above 30 (6)(10)
- Reapplying sunscreen every two hours when outdoors
- Seeking shade
- Wearing a hat with a wide brim
- Wearing sunglasses
- Wearing protective clothing that covers a large portion of your skin (6)(13)
Learn more about protecting your skin from the sun on the Fullscript blog.
The ABCDEs of melanoma: what to look for
Before performing a skin self-exam, it’s important to know what to look for. In 1985, a group of medical doctors at New York University developed criteria for detecting melanoma. The ABCDE mnemonic, detailed below, is intended to help both practitioners and the general public distinguish between normal and abnormal skin lesions. (8)
Checking your skin for suspicious moles or other skin growths is essential for early detection of melanoma and other skin cancers. How often should you do a skin self-exam? Many experts recommend that adults perform self-exams on a monthly basis, especially if you’re at risk of getting skin cancer. All you need to perform a skin self-exam is a full-length mirror, handheld mirror, and a place to sit. Each month, follow the steps below to detect any new or suspicious moles, blemishes, or freckles. (2)
- Face a full-length mirror and examine your face, ears, neck, chest, and belly.
- Examine your upper arms, underarms, forearms, and palms.
- Look in-between your fingers and underneath your fingernails.
- Sit down and look at your legs, tops of your feet, between your toes, and under your toenails.
- Use a hand mirror to examine the hard to see areas such as the soles of your feet, calves, and backs of your thighs.
- Use a hand mirror to examine your buttocks, genital area, back, and the back of your neck and ears.
- Use a hairdryer or comb to examine your scalp. (2)
If you notice anything new or unusual during your self-exam, call your practitioner for guidance and recommendations.
Tip: If you have a smartphone, take photos of any skin lesions and share them with your dermatologist. This can be especially helpful for detecting visual changes to a spot over time.
How effective are skin self-exams?
According to a 2010 review examining the sensitivity (ability of a test to detect a true positive) and specificity (ability of a test to detect a true negative) of skin self-exams for the early detection of melanoma, sensitivity ranged from 25 to 93% and specificity was between 83 and 97%. While self-examinations aren’t 100% accurate at detecting melanoma, they’re a relatively simple and cost-effective method of screening for the general public. (7)(12)
When to see your healthcare provider
If you notice a new or concerning spot on your skin, make an appointment with your healthcare provider or dermatologist. A dermatologist can perform minimally invasive, in-office tests to determine whether a spot is cancerous or benign (non-cancerous).
An annual visit to a dermatologist is generally recommended for most people. If you’re at an increased risk of developing melanoma or other skin cancers, you may be advised to visit a dermatologist more frequently. Annual exams are quick and involve a full-body visual examination of your skin. (11)
The bottom line
Melanoma is a type of cancer that can spread quickly to other organs, making early detection critical. Regular self-exams and annual visits to the dermatologist can help detect melanomas or other skin cancers early on when they’re most treatable. If you’re a patient, speak to your integrative healthcare provider for guidance and recommendations.
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2022). What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/find/at-risk/abcdes
- American Cancer Society. (2019a). How to do a skin Self-Exam. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/skin-exams.html
- American Cancer Society. (2019b). Melanoma skin cancer risk factors. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
- American Cancer Society. (2022). Melanoma skin cancer statistics. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
- Canadian Cancer Society. (2022). Melanoma skin cancer statistics. https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/skin-melanoma/statistics
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). What can I do to reduce my risk of skin cancer? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/prevention.htm
- Hamidi, R., Peng, D., & Cockburn, M. (2010). Efficacy of skin self-examination for the early detection of melanoma. International Journal of Dermatology, 49(2), 126–134.
- Rigel, D. S., Russak, J., & Friedman, R. (2010). The evolution of melanoma diagnosis: 25 years beyond the ABCDs. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 60(5), 301–316. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.20074
- Saginala, K., Barsouk, A., Aluru, J. S., Rawla, P., & Barsouk, A. (2021). Epidemiology of melanoma. Medical Sciences, 9(4), 63.
- Skin Cancer Foundation. (2022). Ask the expert: Does a high SPF protect my skin better? https://www.skincancer.org/blog/ask-the-expert-does-a-high-spf-protect-my-skin-better/
- The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2022). Annual exams. https://www.skincancer.org/early-detection/annual-exams/
- Trevethan, R. (2017). Sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values: Foundations, pliabilities, and pitfalls in research and practice. Frontiers in Public Health, 5.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2021). Sunscreen: How to help protect your skin from the sun. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/understanding-over-counter-medicines/sunscreen-how-help-protect-your-skin-sun