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Skin Cancer Screening: Visual Exam FAQs

Whether it’s done by yourself or a health care provider, skin cancer screening is pivotal in skin cancer diagnosis. Check out the answers to these skin cancer FAQs to find out who potentially needs professional skin cancer testing, what the results may indicate, and how much skin cancer screening costs.

Cancer is when the body’s cells start to grow abnormally. Most tumors of the skin are benign, however, in some cases they can turn malignant or cancerous. Some common examples of benign skin tumors are:

  • Most types of moles
  • Seborrheic keratoses — These are black, tan, or brown-colored raised spots with either a waxy surface or occasionally a crumbly and rough surface (when present on your legs).
  • Lipomas — These are soft tumors that consist of fat cells.
  • Hemangiomas — These are benign growths of blood vessels (sometimes known as strawberry spots).
  • Warts — These are growths with a rough surface. They are often caused by some strains of human papillomavirus.

The goal of skin cancer screening is to look for signs of skin cancer before you have any symptoms. It may help find cancer in its early stages, when it can be more easily treated. To perform a skin cancer screening, a medical professional will look at your freckles, moles, and other types of birthmarks on your skin. They don’t take any blood samples or do biopsies of the skin lesions. A skin cancer screening generally takes about 15 minutes. If you have an abnormal skin cancer screening result, you may need more diagnostic tests to rule out skin cancer or determine the right treatment.

It is helpful to be familiar with your skin to detect any signs of skin cancer early. Many health care providers recommend checking your skin once a month. 

To do a self-exam of your skin, find a room that is well lit and stand in front of a full-length mirror. You can use a hand-held mirror to see parts of your body that are hard to see in the full-length mirror, like the backs of your thighs.

Look over all the areas of your body, including the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, ears, nails, scalp, and back.

Stand facing the mirror and check your ears, face, neck, belly, and chest. Lift your breasts and check the skin underneath. Check your underarms, the palms and tops of your hands, both sides of your arms, under your fingernails, and in between your fingers.

Sit down and check the front of your thighs, shins, in between your toes, tops of your feet, and under your toenails. Using a hand mirror, check the bottoms of your feet, calves, and backs of your thighs. Also check your buttocks, upper and lower back, backs of your ears and neck, and your genital area.

One of the best times to perform a skin cancer self-screening is after taking a shower or bath. If you check your skin regularly, you will be aware of your skin’s normal spots and notice if anything starts looking different.

A health care provider or dermatologist may conduct a full-body skin cancer screening following these steps:

  • You may remove all of your clothing; however, you may wear a gown.
  • The dermatologist will examine you from head to toe, including your scalp, behind your ears, toes, fingers, genitals, and buttocks.
  • They may use a magnifying glass to look more carefully at certain marks.

According to the US Preventive Services Task Force, for people without a history of skin cancer or any suspicious-looking moles or marks, there’s not enough evidence to determine if full-body skin cancer screenings should be done routinely for the early detection of skin cancer. 

If you do have a history of skin cancer, it is important to get regular skin cancer screenings by a health care provider. Furthermore, if you find an abnormal change in your skin or any unusual spots or moles while doing a self-exam, you should talk to a health care provider.

Some factors that may increase risk for developing nonmelanoma skin cancers are:

  • Exposure to artificial (e.g., tanning beds) or natural sunlight for extended periods
  • Having light- or fair-colored skin that burns and freckles easily, tans poorly, or doesn’t tan; blonde hair; or light-colored eyes
  • Having precancerous lesions known as actinic keratosis
  • Having had radiation therapy
  • Having a weak immune system
  • Being exposed to arsenic

Although people with a fair complexion have a higher risk of developing skin cancer, it can happen to people with any skin tone or color.

If you find any of these initial signs of skin cancer while doing a skin cancer self-screening, you may need a full-body skin cancer screening from a health care provider:

  • A change in an existing spot or mole
  • A mole or other birthmark that bleeds, becomes crusty, or oozes
  • A mole that becomes painful or tender to the touch
  • A shiny pink, pearly white, red, or translucent bump
  • A sore that doesn’t heal or get better after two weeks
  • A mole with irregular borders that bleeds quite easily

While doing a skin self-exam, make sure to look for signs of melanoma. You can use the mnemonic ABCDE to remember what to check for:

  • Asymmetry — The birthmark or mole is oddly shaped or has mismatched sides.
  • Border — The spot or mole has an irregular or ragged border.
  • Color — The mole has an uneven color.
  • Diameter — The mole is larger than a pencil eraser or pea (about one-fourth of an inch).
  • Evolving — The birthmark or mole is changing in color, shape, or size.

You shouldn’t wear nail polish or makeup before going in for a full-body skin cancer screening. Keep your hair loose so the health care provider can examine your scalp. There’s nothing else you need to do to prepare.

There are no suspicious moles or spots on your skin.

If any spot on your skin appears to be a sign of skin cancer, your health care provider may recommend another test known as a skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. During a skin biopsy, the health care provider will remove a tiny sample of skin and send it to a lab for testing. The pathologist looks at the sample under a microscope and checks for malignant cells. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, your health care provider will talk to you about treatment.

According to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, the average cost of a skin cancer screening is $150 (including about $70 for the office visit and $45 for the biopsy and pathology costs.

You can also go to a free or low-cost clinic for a skin cancer screening. 

Most health insurance providers at least partially cover annual skin cancer screenings. You may only need to provide the copay.

Some organizations provide free skin cancer screenings to the general public. If you visit your dermatologist, the fee for a skin cancer screening may vary. 

There are some non-commercial funds that may be able to help you find free skin cancer screenings near you.

A skin cancer screening involves looking carefully at your skin. You can do it yourself, or it can be done by a dermatologist. A full-body skin cancer screening may help find skin cancer earlier, when it’s easier to treat.

1. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer.html
2. https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/patient/skin-screening-pdq
3. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/skin-cancer-screening/
4. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/skin-exams.html
5. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/screening.htm
6. https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/patient/skin-prevention-pdq
7. https://www.skincancer.org/blog/annual-skin-exam/
8. https://www.destinationhealthyskin.org/about/
9. https://www.asds.net/skin-experts/skin-cancer/what-is-a-skin-cancer-screening
10. https://www.aad.org/public/public-health/skin-cancer-screenings#.UbYDxG81m8B
11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5963718/

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