Melanoma Skin Cancer

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can melanoma skin cancer be found early?

Melanoma can often be found early. Everyone can play an important role in finding skin cancer early, when it is most likely to be cured.

Skin self-exam

It’s important to check your own skin, preferably once a month. 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.

Self-exam is 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, about 1 of every 3 melanomas occurs on the back). Friends and family members can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.

For a more thorough description of how to do a skin self-exam, see Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection and Why You Should Know About Melanoma, or visit our Skin Self-exam Image Gallery.

See the section “Signs and symptoms of melanoma skin cancer” to know what to look for when examining your skin.

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

As part of a routine cancer-related checkup, your doctor or other health care professional should check your skin carefully. He or she should be willing to discuss any concerns you might have about this exam.

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 dermatoscopy (also known as dermoscopy, epiluminescence microscopy [ELM], or surface microscopy) to look at spots on the skin more clearly. A digital or photographic image of the spot may be taken. (See the section “How is melanoma skin cancer diagnosed?” 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.

Last Medical Review: 03/19/2015
Last Revised: 03/20/2015