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BEACON Senior News

How to spot skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world. But the good news is it’s also the cancer you can actually see on your body. 

By learning to recognize the warning signs of the disease, you can identify suspicious spots before they become dangerous. Most skin cancers are highly treatable when diagnosed at an early stage, but if left to grow, they can become disfiguring or even deadly. This is why early detection is so important.

“I’ve had many patients point to something they found on their skin and ask, ‘What’s that?’” said Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, president of The Skin Cancer Foundation. “Sometimes it was a person’s partner who pushed them to get a spot checked out. We all have the power to speak up about a suspicious lesion on our own body or the skin of a friend or family member.”

What’s your risk?

One in five Americans will get skin cancer by age 70. 

Anyone can get skin cancer regardless of race, ethnicity or skin tone, but some people are at higher risk than others. People with very fair skin are extremely susceptible to skin damage as well as to skin cancers. People with dark skin tones are generally less vulnerable to UV damage because of the type of melanin darker skin produces, and how it is distributed. However, when they do develop skin cancer, it tends to be found at a more advanced and dangerous stage. 

Other risk factors for skin cancer include a history of sunburns, a history of tanning (outside or in a tanning bed) and a family or personal history of skin cancer.

How to spot potential skin cancers

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you perform a head-to-toe self-exam every month to look for potential skin cancers. Some things to look for include a growth that changes in size, thickness, color or texture. Skin cancers can appear pearly, transparent, tan, brown, black or multicolored. You should also pay attention to any sore or spot that continues to itch, hurt, crust or bleed, or spots that are slow to heal.

The Ugly Duckling rule is something else to keep in mind during a self-exam. The rule is based on the concept that normal moles on the body resemble each other, while melanoma (a dangerous form of skin cancer) can stand out like an ugly duckling. These lesions can be larger, smaller, lighter or darker in contrast to surrounding moles. Isolated lesions without surrounding moles for comparison are also considered ugly ducklings.

Since all skin cancers present differently, the most important tip is to be on the lookout for anything new, changing or unusual. If you spot anything suspicious during your self-exam, make an appointment with a dermatologist right away. You can find more information on how to perform a self-exam and how to prepare for an annual exam on at

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