"Ninety percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with sun exposure, which means there's so much we can do to stay safe," says Elizabeth Hale, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Arm yourself with the info you need, and rest assured: A gorgeous summer day is nothing to be afraid of.
Recognize Trouble Spots
You're already on the lookout for weird moles (if not, you should be), but there's more to pick up on: A persistent rough, scaly patch or a shiny bump that won't go away could be a red flag for squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma. These skin cancers pop up in all skin types and colors and are more common than melanoma, though less life-threatening.
Is It SCC (Squamous Cell Carcinoma)?
That dry, flaky patch of skin that seems to stick around? It might be a precancer to SCC. Precancers are clusters of abnormal cells that have started to divide abnormally and could turn into skin cancer, says David J. Leffell, MD, chief of dermatologic surgery and cutaneous oncology at Yale School of Medicine.
If you have one, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get skin cancer (up to 5 percent may become SCC). But if you don't have it taken off by your doc and that area gets more time in the sun, it can turn cancerous and become tricky to remove, with more potential for scarring, says Dr. Leffell. (Extra motivation to slather on SPF!)
Actinic keratosis (AK) — the most common type of precancer — can also be practically invisible but still feels rough to the touch.
"A lot of patients just put moisturizer on these spots and don't think much about them," says Anne Marie McNeill, MD, a dermatologist in Newport Beach, CA, and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. "However, any patch of dry skin that won't go away or that keeps returning after you slough it off is worth showing to your derm." And don't wait for your annual skin check.
Is It BCC (Basal Cell Carcinoma)?
Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, often shows up as a reddish patch or a smooth bump that you may think is a pimple at first but just doesn't go away. And here's where things get a little gross: "If the spot bleeds, oozes, gets crusty, doesn't heal, or sticks around longer than a month, then make an appointment with your doctor," says Dr. Hale.
Even if the diagnosis is BCC, there's good news. It's 95 to 100 percent curable when detected and treated early and has the lowest risk of spreading to other areas of the body.
Get SPF in Your Corner: It's not all about cancer. The more sun smart you are, the younger you'll look!
A One-Two Punch: See your derm every year for a head-to-toe exam, and do your own self-checks once a month.
How to Do a Body Check
Here's a stat that might motivate you to regularly give your skin a good once-over: Up to 57 percent of melanomas are detected by patients themselves, according to a recent study. And a thorough job usually takes around eight to 10 minutes, says Jerry Brewer, MD, a Mayo Clinic dermatologic surgeon.
When you look at your moles, think of the ABCDEs below, and keep an eye out for something that's weird compared with any other moles, brown patches, and freckles on your body. If all your spots are light brown, for example, and you notice a black one, have it checked by a dermatologist, says Hale. The same goes for spots that seem to have popped up out of nowhere.
Asymmetry: Circles — even slightly imperfect ones — are OK; lopsided, splotchy shapes are not.
Borders: Even is good; uneven is bad.
Color: You want it to be uniform,not multiple shades of blue, gray, black, or red.
Diameter: A red flag = bigger than 6 mm, about the size of a pencil eraser.
Evolution: Look for moles that have grown, are inflamed, itch, or bleed.
To make sure you get checked out all over, enlist some help in viewing hard-to-see places, starting with your back. "Pair up with your partner, your sister, or a friend, and tell them what to look for," suggests Brewer. "That can go a long way toward early detection."
Get Your Hairstylist Involved
Your scalp and the area behind your ears can be especially tough to see yourself, so the next time you're getting your hair cut, ask your stylist if she notices any strange-looking spots while she's parting and combing your hair this way and that.
This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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