How (and Why) to Do a Self-Exam for Skin Cancer
It takes just 10 minutes a month to do a self-exam, from scalp to toes.
No one knows your body as well as you do. That's why dermatologists recommend that all adults perform a monthly full-body check. "If you do regular self-exams and see a dermatologist once a year, you should be able to catch most skin cancers," says Anne Marie McNeill, MD, a Newport Beach, California, dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Unfortunately, studies have found that only 28 to 33% of people make self-exams a habit. To ensure you never skip yours, Dr. McNeill recommends adding monthly reminders into your smartphone calendar. (While you're at it, text a friend and remind her to do hers, too.) Then follow these steps.
Gather your supplies
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Remove your clothes and face the full-length mirror; it's best to do this in natural light, but any bright light is fine, Dr. McNeill says. If possible, ask your partner or a friend to do it with you, so you can help each other with hard-to-see places.
Start at the top
You can do a skin check in any order, but Dr. McNeill advises being systematic so the whole process becomes routine. An easy way is to work from top to bottom. Start by examining your head and face. Check vulnerable places like your ears (front, back, and inside), lips and the sides of your nose. Next, thoroughly inspect your scalp, using the blow-dryer to blow sections of hair out of the way; don't forget the nape of your neck.
What you should notice: "In general, any new spot or mole that comes up in adulthood should be evaluated," Dr. McNeill says, as well as anything that just looks unusual. Docs call them "ugly ducklings"—spots that look different from other spots or are changing.
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Examine hands and arms
Look at your palms, between each of your fingers and under your fingernails. (Remove nail polish before doing your check.) Work your way up your forearms, looking at the fronts and backs; then lift your arms over your head and look in the mirror to check elbows, undersides of upper arms and underarms.
Give your torso a look
Give your torso a look. On the front side, examine the heavily sun-exposed shoulders and décolletage, and lift and look under your breasts. Next, use the hand mirror to check your shoulders and back.
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Review your bottom half
Check fronts and sides of legs (legs are the most common site for melanomas in women). Then, using the chair, elevate one leg at a time and use the hand mirror to check backs of legs, feet (including soles, heels, between toes and under toenails), your derriere, and genitals. Though most ob-gyns examine that area during your yearly checkup, in between appointments, "you really should be looking at all the cracks and crevices," says Brooke Jackson, MD.
Use the body map to record the location, size and color of any spots you see. Dr. McNeill suggests snapping photos of questionable ones to help you keep track of whether they're changing over time. File the body maps and photos somewhere you won't forget about them so you can monitor changes over time. And, of course, see your derm if you spot anything suspicious.