Health & Wellness

Have You Seen a Dermatologist Lately? Maybe You Should

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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US [1], according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

In the US, an estimated 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day [1]. That’s why it may be important to have a skin checkup with a dermatologist, says Ramsey Markus, M.D., who is an associate professor of dermatology, director of the Laser Surgery Center and co-director of Baylor College of Medicine Aesthetics. “To assist in early detection, patients should take a look at themselves, be familiar with what’s on their skin and if they see anything that looks unusual, have a dermatologist check it out,” says Markus.   

Here’s what you should know about skin cancer and how you may help prevent it:

Make an appointment to find out if you’re at increased risk.  

Markus advises people who have fair skin, have experienced sunburns (even as children) and are age 40 and older to be particularly diligent about making an appointment for an annual skin check. He adds that if someone has had excessive sun damage and has a history of skin cancer, they may want to make an appointment more frequently.

If you see something unusual, get checked out.

Markus says that during a skin check appointment he does a quick scan of the skin (as much as the patient is comfortable with)—including the scalp, ears, neck, face, chest, arms, trunk, hands, legs, feet, nails and between the toes—searching for any abnormal spots. If he finds something of concern, he’ll either treat it (if it’s pre-cancerous) or perform a biopsy to determine if it’s cancer, and then determine a course of treatment. (The American Academy of Dermatology offers free skin cancer screenings. Click here to find one near you).

Learn what to look for at home.

Markus also educates patients on what to look for on their own skin, and advises them to check themselves once a month.

He says there are three types of skin cancer. Melanoma is the most dangerous, he says, because it can spread internally. “Melanoma usually looks like an odd mole that has unusual features,” says Markus.

The warning signs are what dermatologists refer to as ABCDE:

  • Asymmetry: the shape is irregular and not symmetrical
  • Border irregularity: the borders aren’t well defined
  • Colors: the colors are different from your other moles, and the hue may be uneven or multi-colored
  • Diameter: it’s larger than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser)
  • Evolution: it has changed in color or size

The other two types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell— are more common, says Markus. He says that basal cell carcinoma may look like it has a shiny or pearly look, or it may appear as a sore that never heals. Squamous cell carcinoma, he says, “tends to look a little bit scaly. Red, pink and kind of rough.” If you think you have any of the above, says Markus, have it checked out by a dermatologist.

Protect yourself for the future.

Sun protection is key, says Markus. “Exposure to the sun is the biggest cause of skin cancer,” he says. He advises patients to do whatever they can to minimize direct sun exposure: sit in the shade or under an umbrella, wear a big hat and sunglasses, put on long sleeves or fabric with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating, and, of course, always wear sunscreen—30 SPF on days when you will be spending time both inside and outside and higher levels when you are planning to spend a moderate amount of time outside (Markus recommends sunscreen with physical sunblock ingredients, such as titanium or zinc).

By getting a skin check—and encouraging others to do so—you could make a lasting health difference. When it comes to fighting skin cancer, early discovery is key.

[1] American Academy of Dermatology

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