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Whatís This Strange Mole? Self-Examination For Skin Cancer

By: Dr. Jason K Rivers, BSc, FRCPC

Most people have freckles, birthmarks, or moles, but any irregularities or a change in the shape, edge, colour or size can be warning signs of skin cancer.

Skin cancer can take 20 years or more to develop. Many forms grow slowly, but some melanomas may grow quickly. If found in the early stages itís very treatable, and the way to find it early is by doing a self-exam every three to six months. This should take no more than 5 or 10 minutes, 10 minutes that could save your life. You can also view a brief video on early detection at Skin Cancer Self-Examination.

Self-Examination: Where to look

  1. Examine your head and face using one or two mirrors. Moving your hair aside, to examine your scalp.
  2. Examine your hands, including your nails.
  3. Check your elbows, arms and underarms.
  4. Look closely on your neck, chest and torso Ė check under your breasts if you are a woman.
  5. Using a second mirror examine the back of your neck and shoulders, as well as your upper arms, legs, back, and behind.
  6. Sit down and examine your lower legs and feet, including nails, heels, and soles.
  7. Use a small mirror to check your genitals.

Self-Examination: What to look for

  • Note changes on your skin, such as a growth or a sore that won't heal
  • Look for small lumps that are smooth, shiny and waxy, or red or reddish brown
  • Be alert to flat red spots that are rough or scaly

For melanoma, the changes have been classified as the ABCDís of melanoma:

You should also be aware of other changes to your moles and seek medical advise if any of these changes occur:

  • The mole suddenly or continuously gets larger.
  • The skin around a mole becomes red or develops coloured blemishes or swellings.
  • A mole that was flat or slightly elevated increases in height rapidly.
  • A smooth mole develops scaliness, erosion or oozing. Crusting, ulceration or bleeding are signs of more advanced disease.
  • Itching is the most common early symptom - there may also be feelings of tenderness or pain. Skin cancers however are usually painless.

Early detection of skin cancer is critical as it reduces the risk for spread to other areas of the body. Have your moles checked regularly by a dermatologist or your family doctor.

About the author:
Jason Rivers, MD, FRCPC is a Professor of Dermatology at the University of British Columbia. He qualified as a dermatologist in 1986, having trained in Ottawa, Canada and London, England. Subsequently, Dr. Rivers spent one year at the Skin and Cancer Unit at New York University and studied for two years in Australia where he was involved in melanoma research. Dr. Rivers served for seven years as National Director of the Canadian Dermatology Association's Sun Awareness Program, and also participated in Environment Canada's forum to develop the UV index. His current practice includes cutaneous oncology, general dermatology, laser, and cosmetic dermatology


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