What to Expect During a Skin Cancer Screening

Silas Hassrick’s father was diagnosed with melanoma when Silas was a child, making skin protection and annual dermatology appointments a way of life for the family. Silas first shared his story with us in Melanoma, Marathons and Life Lessons from Dad. Here, he explains what to expect during a skin cancer screening and why he encourages everyone to go.

1. The Importance of Regular Screening

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and occurs in all skin types.¹ Even if you don’t think you’re at risk because you don’t frequent tanning beds or forget your sunscreen, being safe can pay off in the end. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 99 percent of all skin cancer cases are curable if they are diagnosed and treated early. If you are old enough to vote, you should be getting screened for skin cancer every year, says skin cancer surgeon Marc Glashofer, M.D.²

2. Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer

Every year around 10,000 people die from melanoma in the United States, making it one of the deadliest cancers nationally.³ To put that into perspective, it is estimated that one person dies every hour from this disease. Experts recommend that anyone with a family history of skin cancer, and those who are regularly exposed to the sun for several hours at a time, see a dermatologist. With the global coronavirus pandemic instilling a newfound appreciation for walking, cycling and other outdoor activities, we should all be even more cognizant of our time in the sun.

3. What You Can Expect During Your Appointment

Although details might vary depending upon location and other factors, you can expect a similar screening experience at most dermatologists. If you’ve never been to a skin checkup, one of the lesser-known aspects about the experience is the fact that you are asked to de-robe and put on a hospital gown. This allows for easy access to the skin for the dermatologist without articles of clothing that might get in the way. However, before that occurs, a nurse will ask you about any family history with skin cancer and any changes to your health. Once these things are taken care of you will be greeted by the dermatologist.

During my appointments, the dermatologist usually starts with scanning my back and using a circular microscope tool to get a better look at any problematic or questionable areas. From here, the doctor goes limb to limb, even checking my feet. The goal is to rule out any skin abnormalities. If any are found, the dermatologist either takes immediate action or gives instructions for monitoring the spot through self-examinations.

The only significant differences in my last trip to the dermatologist were the safety protocols for COVID-19, which included a nurse taking my temperature at the door, asking a series of health questions, plexiglass barriers between myself and the receptionists, spacing between the chairs, and of course, a mask requirement and hand sanitizer stations. In regard to the question of whether or not it is safe to go to a new dermatologist at the moment, there is no definitive answer. For the majority of people, the answer is probably yes. Some dermatologists are even doing telemedicine visits. Your best bet is to reach out to your dermatologist and ask what their safety protocols are at the moment, let them know of any pre-existing conditions or immunocompromising factors, and let them advise on the best course of action.

4. If Your Doctor Finds Something of Concern

It is not unusual for your doctor to find something they would like to investigate. My dermatologist and I have been keeping track of a mole on my back that was giving both of us a little hesitation, although it was still within the standards for “normal” moles. Coming into this appointment, my doctor decided it was best to remove the mole and let me tell you — I did not expect to have a small slice cut off from my back. However, the dermatologist removed the mole with amazing efficiency and a relative lack of pain.

For anyone who’s had a mole removed, the process creates some stress thinking about what might happen if cancer is found. For most people, melanoma will hopefully not be a part of your annual visit, nor should it be expected if skincare advice is taken (i.e. sunscreen and sun protection clothing). Each time I go, I am thankful that I have the opportunity to have peace of mind for the next year.

5. Perform a Self-Assessment Beforehand — and Regularly!

A great tool for expediting your time at the dermatologist is by doing a self-assessment. This involves manually checking your skin for abnormal-looking moles from head to toe. A great tool to keep in mind during this process is the ABCDEs of dermatology. Any moles that fit the description below should be assessed during your visit and helps a dermatologist know what to look for.

A new mole, a change to an existing mole or any other change in your skin can be a symptom of skin cancer. These are the warning signs of skin cancer as listed by the CDC⁴:

  • “A” stands for asymmetrical. Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?

  • “B” stands for border. Is the border irregular or jagged?

  • “C” is for color. Is the color uneven?

  • “D” is for diameter. Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?

  • “E” is for evolving. Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?

6. Protective Measures to Take After Your Screening

For me, an annual screening means peace of mind for the next year, while continuing to watch any areas of concern, like moles and warts, to make sure nothing progresses. If you notice any changes, tell your doctor right away. And, of course, keeping up with a good skincare routine (limiting time in the sun, wearing sunscreen and covering sun-exposed areas) will go a long way toward protecting you in the future.

Most experts recommend seeing a dermatologist annually. When it comes to cancer, any kind of cancer, early detection is key.

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