The skin is the body’s largest organ and provides many key bodily functions. The skin protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection, helps control body temperature and stores water, fat, and vitamin D. The skin has two main layers: the upper or outer layer called the epidermis and the lower or inner layer called the dermis. Skin cancers begin in the cells of the epidermis.1
- Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis and can become squamous cell cancers.
- Basal cells reside under the squamous cells and can develop into basal cell cancers.
- Melanocytes are cells in the skin pigment melanin that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun or artificial light, melanocytes make more pigment and cause the skin to darken. Cancers that arise from the melanocytes are referred to as malignant melanoma.
Signs of Melanoma
The signs and symptoms for melanoma most commonly include a change in the way a mole or pigmented area of the skin appears. A change in skin appearance is not always caused by melanoma or other skin cancers but should always be brought to the attention of your doctor. The most common signs and symptoms for melanoma are:
A pre-existing mole that:
- changes in size, shape or color.
- has or develops irregular borders.
- is more than one color.
- bleeds or oozes any fluid
- is asymmetrical
A new mole that:
- grows near an existing mole
- changes in pigmentation (color)
How to Do a Skin Self-Exam2
Your doctor or nurse may suggest that you do a regular skin self-exam to check for skin cancer, including melanoma.
The best time to do this exam is after a shower or bath. You should check your skin in a room with plenty of light. You should use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror. It’s best to begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles, and other marks are and their usual look and feel.
Check for anything new:
- New mole (that looks different from your other moles)
- New red or darker color flaky patch that may be a little raised
- New flesh-colored firm bump
- Change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole
- Sore that does not heal
Check yourself from head to toe. Don’t forget to check your back, scalp, genital area, and between your buttocks.
- Look at your face, neck, ears, and scalp. You may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move your hair so that you can see better. You also may want to have a relative or friend check through your hair. It may be hard to check your scalp by yourself.
- Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror. Then, raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
- Bend your elbows. Look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides), and upper arms.
- Examine the back, front, and sides of your legs. Also look around your genital area and between your buttocks.
- Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, your soles, and the spaces between your toes.
By checking your skin regularly, you will learn what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If your doctor has taken photos of your skin, you can compare your skin to the photos to help check for changes. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor.
Next: Diagnosis & Tests for Melanoma
1 Cancer Facts & Figures. American Cancer Society website. Available at:http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-036845.pdf.
2 National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer. NIH Publication 05-1564. Revised June, 2005. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/skin. Accessed December 7, 2006.
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