Can Melanoma Skin Cancer Be Found Early?

Melanoma can often be found early, when it is most likely to be cured. Some people have a higher risk of getting melanoma than others, but it’s important to know that anyone can get melanoma.

Skin self-exam

Although the American Cancer Society does not have guidelines for the early detection of skin cancer, knowing your own skin is important to finding skin cancer early. You should know the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any new moles or changes in existing moles.

Many doctors recommend checking your own skin, preferably once a month. Skin self-exams are best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror to help look at areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs. Examine all areas, including your palms and soles, scalp, ears, nails, and your back (in men, the back is a common place for melanomas to start). Friends and family members can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.

To learn more, see How to Do a Skin Self Exam.

See Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma Skin Cancer to learn about what to look for when examining your skin. Any spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor promptly. Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you, and ask your doctor to look at areas that may be hard for you to see.

Exam by a health care professional

Some doctors and other health care professionals do skin exams as part of routine health check-ups.

If your primary doctor finds any unusual moles or other suspicious areas, he or she may refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin problems. Dermatologists can also do regular skin exams. Many dermatologists use a technique called dermoscopy (also known as dermatoscopy, epiluminescence microscopy [ELM], or surface microscopy) to look at spots on the skin more clearly. A photo of the spot may be taken as well. (See Tests for Melanoma Skin Cancer for more information.)

Regular skin exams are especially important for people who are at higher risk of melanoma, such as people with dysplastic nevus syndrome, people with a strong family history of melanoma, and people who have had melanoma before. If you have many moles, your doctor might advise taking full-body photos so your moles can be tracked over time and new ones can be seen more readily. (This is sometimes called total body photography or mole mapping.) Talk to your doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Mitchell TC, Karakousis G, Schuchter L. Chapter 66: Melanoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.

Ribas A, Read P, Slingluff CL. Chapter 92: Cutaneous Melanoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Last Medical Review: August 14, 2019 Last Revised: August 14, 2019

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