Skin cancer screening: What to expect
Skin screenings can detect melanoma and other skin cancers early.
Skin cancer screening exams are the best way to catch melanoma and other skin cancers early, when they’re easiest to treat.
If you’re at increased risk for skin cancer, you may need an annual skin cancer screening exam. You may be at increased risk if you have:
- Red or blond hair, fair skin, freckles and blue or light-colored eyes
- More than 50 moles
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure
- One or more blistering sunburns
- Family history of melanoma
- Personal history of basal cell and/or squamous cell skin cancers
Even if you aren’t at increased risk, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your skin. If you notice an irregular mole or spot, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist for a diagnostic exam.
We talked to Patricia Andon, a patient at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, about what to expect during a skin cancer exam.
Scheduling a skin cancer screening
Patricia was on vacation when she first noticed a spot on her leg. The skin in the area was starting to change quickly and becoming red and irritated.
She knew that changes on her skin, especially new spots or changing moles, could be skin cancer symptoms. As a child, she lost a family friend to melanoma, and that experience stayed with her. She knew she needed to see a dermatologist.
“I scheduled an appointment for as soon as we returned,” she says. She called MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she used work in Information Services.
During the appointment
When Patricia arrived at her appointment, she was asked to change into a hospital gown so her dermatologist could examine her entire body. Skin cancer can occur anywhere, including the scalp, the mouth, the soles of your feet and the genital area. That’s why it’s important for your dermatologist to make a thorough examination.
The doctor looked at her skin from head to toe, looking for signs of skin cancers. Most skin cancers fall into one of these three categories:
- Basal cell: a slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads, signaled by an irregular spot on the skin
- Squamous cell: more likely to spread, but much less common. Also starts as an irregular spot or patch of skin
- Melanoma: makes up only 2 percent of cancers, but is the most aggressive. It starts with an irregular mole.
Patricia shared the spot that was concerning her. The doctor examined it and assured her it was nothing to worry about. It was dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin. She wrote Patricia a prescription that she was able to fill that day.
“The whole examination took no more than 10 minutes,” she says.
Fortunately, Patricia did not have any suspicious spots or moles. But sometimes dermatologists find spots on the skin that they may be concerned about.
When a dermatologist finds a suspicious mole or patch during a skin exam, he or she will determine whether it’s best to monitor it or remove it. It may even be documented with photos so patients can keep up with any changes.
If the mole or spot does need to be removed, the patient could have it done that day or schedule another appointment. This may require one or two small stiches.
Then, a biopsy will be performed on the skin sample. The patient will get the results in the next couple of weeks, along with follow-up instructions from the doctor.
Patricia plans to return to her dermatologist next month for a follow-up appointment.
“Now I’m not nervous about going back because I know exactly what to expect,” she says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.