Skin cancer and melanoma prevention
Skin cancer screening is generally recommended for people at increased risk for developing skin cancer. Not everyone with risk factors develops skin cancer. However, if you do have one or more risk factors, discuss them with your health care provider and get regular skin cancer screenings. The earlier skin cancer is found, the better the chance of it being treated successfully.
The following factors put you at increased risk for skin cancer:
- Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure: Extensive lifetime sun exposure or occasional intense exposure causing a sunburn
- Tanning bed use
- Age: The longer you are exposed to the sun over time, the higher your risk of developing skin cancer
- Having a fair complexion, blonde or red hair, freckles, blue eyes and/or a tendency to sunburn
- Having 50 or more moles
- A personal or family history of skin cancer, including melanoma
- Immunosuppression, typically due to taking immunosuppressive drugs
- Previous serious skin injuries, such as a major scar or burn
- History of actinic (solar) keratoses. These are precancerous lesions.
- Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma Syndrome (FAMMMS)
- Certain rare genetic disorders, including xeroderma pigmentosum and basal cell nevus syndrome
What to expect at your skin screening exam
During a skin cancer screening exam, your doctor will look all over your body for signs of actinic keratoses (precancers), basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. They also will look for abnormal moles that can signal melanoma.
If your dermatologist finds a suspicious mole or growth, they will determine whether it’s best to monitor it or remove it. They may take photos to aid in monitoring the lesions.
If the mole or growth is suspicious, your doctor may recommend a skin biopsy. A biopsy will remove a part or all of the growth so that it can be sent for evaluation by a pathologist. You should get the results within a week, along with follow-up instructions from your doctor.
Dermatologists are highly skilled at recognizing problem areas on your skin. But if you have noticed any changes or have any concerning areas, be sure to point them out.
How to spot skin cancer
Whether or not you are at increased risk for skin cancer, you should be familiar with your skin and be on the lookout for spots, sores that don't heal and abnormal or changing moles. Report them to your doctor without delay.
- Look for new spots or spots that change.
- Watch for sores that don’t heal or heal then return.
- Be aware of spots or sores that change in sensation or are itchy, tender or painful.
- Check everywhere. Skin cancer can develop in places that do not get sun exposure. This includes under your arms, the soles of your feet, buttocks and genital areas.
- Get help to inspect hard-to-see areas such as the scalp.
- Look for areas of concern when you shampoo, shower or apply lotion.
Melanomas are often asymmetrical. That means the two sides look different from each other. They often have borders that are blurry, scalloped or jagged. Melanomas also often have many colors or are haphazardly colored. You should also look at the size. A mole that is larger than 6 millimeters, or the size of a pencil eraser, is cause for concern.
Talk with your doctor if you notice any of the ABCDEs of melanoma, or if you have a mole that is evolving or changing in size, shape or feeling.
Suspicious spots or unusual moles can be a sign of skin cancer. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
Exams for those who have had melanoma
If you’ve had melanoma (a type of skin cancer), you need a different plan to check for cancer recurrence.
Print and share MD Anderson's melanoma survivorship chart with your doctor. Your doctor can use this chart to develop a more tailored screening plan for you.
The screening plans on this page apply to people expected to live for at least 10 years. They’re not for people who have a health condition that may make it hard to diagnose or treat skin cancer. Your doctor can help you decide if you should continue screening after age 75.
Here, Anisha Patel, M.D., shares six things she wants you to know before your skin screening exam.
You’ll be wearing a gown during the skin screening
Skin cancer can occur anywhere on your body, even places that don’t get sun exposure. During the screening, your dermatologist will conduct a head-to-toe examination, which will include your scalp, the bottom of your feet and even your genital areas. “A patient’s comfort is very important to us, but we think it’s better to endure a few moments of discomfort than to overlook a suspicious spot. It may just save your life,” Patel says.
Avoid wearing makeup and nail polish to your skin screening
Come to your skin screening without wearing makeup or nail polish. Because they cover up areas of your skin where cancer can occur, it’s best to avoid these products the day of your exam to ensure your dermatologist can do a thorough screening. “It’s fine to apply products after the screening, but plan to come to see me with clean, bare skin,” Patel says.
A machine isn’t involved in a skin screening
When walking into the examination room, some patients expect to see a machine, such as those for an MRI or CT scan, to conduct the screening. But that’s not the case. The entire screening is done with your dermatologist’s eyes or with the help of a lighted magnifying glass.
Don’t focus on cosmetic concerns
MD Anderson specializes in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, so our dermatology team focuses on skin cancers and skin cancer-related dermatologic issues. Our team and our facility aren’t equipped to address cosmetic procedures, so we suggest that you seek advice from a dermatologist who specializes in your area of concern.
If you’ve had previous skin cancer issues, bring your records
If you’ve had a skin screening in the past that resulted in a biopsy, bring your previous records to your appointment. “This will eliminate the guesswork in understanding your skin cancer risk level,” Patel says. “It may also help us reduce redundancy if you’ve had a similar procedure in the last several months. And in the case we find something suspicious, we can know what treatment you received in the past. Your past biopsy results will also help us determine the best treatment if something cancerous is found.”
The biopsy will happen the same day
If something suspicious is found during your skin screening, we’ll offer to biopsy it that day. A biopsy is the only way to find out if the area is in fact cancerous. We’ll locally numb the suspicious area of your skin and remove a small amount of tissue to send to a lab to be examined under a microscope. We’ll then cover the biopsied area with adhesive bandages and you’ll go on your way. The procedure takes only a few minutes and you should heal in just a few weeks.
We’ll know the results of your biopsy in about a week. “You shouldn’t spend the days after your skin screening worrying about biopsy results,” Patel says. “Most biopsies don’t result in a cancer diagnosis, and most of those that are skin cancer can be easily treated. But if we do find cancer, rest assured that we’ll start working with you right away to develop a care plan that will work for you.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 1-877-632-6789.
Cancer screening exams can detect cancer early, when the chances for successfully treating the disease are greatest.