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From head to toe: how to perform a skin self-exam

Apr 29, 2013


Skin with magnifying glass for blogAs May brings warmer weather and we spend more time outdoors in the sun, it also marks Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, accounting for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. Fortunately, you can significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting your skin’s exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or man-made sources, such as indoor tanning beds. Skin cancer is also treatable when found early. Both regular exams by your doctor and checking your skin frequently, preferably once a month, through a self-exam can help find skin cancer early.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform a skin self-exam, which is best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Consider asking another person to help you with the exam, especially for those hard-to-see areas like your back and scalp.

  • Begin with using a comb or hair dryer to part your hair so that you can check your scalp.
  • Then move on to your face, ears, neck, chest and belly. For women, don’t forget to check the skin beneath your breasts.
  • Afterwards, check your underarm areas, both sides of your arms, the tops and bottoms of your hands, in between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Using a hand mirror, check the buttocks, genital area, lower and upper back and the back of the neck.
  • Next, check your thighs, shins, tops of your feet, between your toes and under your toenails.
  • Lastly, using a hand mirror, check the bottoms of your feet, your calves and backs of your legs.

While performing your self-exam, look for any of the following signs of skin cancer by using the ABCDE rule as a guide. If you have any of these warning signs, please consult your physician.

  • Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
  • Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color.

Most people have moles, and almost all moles are harmless. A normal mole is usually an evenly colored brown, tan or black spot on the skin less than ¼ inch across. It can be either flat or raised, and round or oval. A mole can be present at birth, or it can appear during childhood or young adulthood. It is important to recognize a new spot on the skin or changes in a mole – such as in its size, shape or color – and then have any suspicious spots checked by a doctor.

For more information on skin cancer, visit:

About the author
Paul G. Goetowski, M.D. (known as “Dr. G.”), is assistant professor at VCU Massey Cancer Center and the director of radiation oncology at Community Memorial Healthcenter (CMH) Cancer and Specialty Care on behalf of Massey. He has extensive experience in using radiation to treat many cancer types and noncancerous diseases.

Written by: Alaina Schneider

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