May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month

We are in the month of May so there’s still time for a plug for Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Skin cancer is common.

How common?

More than 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.

As a dermatologist, I diagnose many of these skin cancers in my clinic every week.  Today, I’m going to highlight a few statements that I have heard from various patients who were ultimately diagnosed with melanoma.

“This mole was changing but I wasn’t too worried because it wasn’t painful or causing any symptoms.”

A changing mole is a reason to see your dermatologist.  About 50% of melanomas (a potentially deadly form of skin cancer) arise de novo —  meaning not from an existing growth. That leaves the other ~50% of melanomas having arisen from pre-existing moles.  If a mole is changing, please please bring it to the attention of your dermatologist.  When you call the office, be clear that you have a changing mole.  If you can’t get into see your dermatologist, see your primary care physician. These days, many insurance plans may require you to see your primary care physician first in order to get a referral (hopefully expedited) to your dermatologist.  Melanoma is most often neither itchy nor painful.  I often counsel my patients that it’s not your job to play doctor; let us evaluate your growth for you.

“I have a flaky spot on my face. I pick off or scrub off the flake and my skin seems to go back to normal but the flaking keeps coming back.”

This is often the history I get for a potentially pre-cancerous spot called an actinic keratosis. Left alone, it can progress to a type of skin cancer called a squamous cell carcinoma.  If you have these spots, see your dermatologist!  It’s a good marker of prior sun exposure that you’ve had.  You are also more at risk for developing skin cancer.  Actinic keratoses are easy for your dermatologist to treat.

I had this growth I was concerned about for some time but I really don’t want a scar from any procedures so I didn’t come in until now.  My [family member, spouse] finally made me come in.”

Yes, taking a skin biopsy can leave a scar. Yes, taking out a skin cancer can leave a scar.  And yes, taking a skin cancer out can also save your life.  Especially if you get it out early.

Find a dermatologist who you can communicate with so you can have a discussion about what your growth might be and what the steps for diagnosing and treating the growth are.  We are not looking to biopsy and cut things out willy-nilly.

For more resources about skin cancer:

How to do a self skin exam

The basics on skin cancer and the ABCDEs of melanoma

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