The importance of early detection of skin cancer is generally well understood today. What's less understood is where to go for a skin check, how often and what checking methods should be used.
It's important to know that anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin colour. Just because 'you don't burn' have darker skin or 'tan easily' does not mean you're exempt from getting skin cancer. When skin cancer develops in people with darker skin tones, it's often in a late stage when diagnosed which can be deadly. Simply put, the sun doesn't stop shining for anyone, so if you're in it, you're at risk. You're just at a higher risk if you have a fairer complexion or a family history of skin cancer.
Protecting your skin from UV rays is the best defence against skin cancer - think sunscreen, hats, glasses, protective clothing and shade. After this, it's important to regularly check your skin for new or changed spots. About 95% of skin cancers are treatable if found early. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and the majority of melanomas are discovered by the person with the melanoma or their partner. This is where the importance of our first step comes in - self checks.
1). Self Check - 3 monthly
There's no exact rule, but general consensus across skin cancer sites recommend you self check once every 3 months. Ensure there's good lighting, a full length mirror and a held mirror or partner/friend to check tricky spots. Completely undress, and check all areas of the body, not just the ones exposed to the sun. Skin cancers don't all look the same, but signs to look out for include:
- a spot that looks and feels different to others on your skin
- a spot that has changed in size, shape, colour or texture
- a sore that doesn't heal within a few weeks
- a sore that is itchy or bleeds
Below is an area checklist, so make sure you don't miss any spots:
- neck (back and front)
- arms (back and front)
- hands (front and back)
- between fingers
- under fingernails
- between toes
- under toenails
- soles of feet
When looking specifically for melanoma, the guidelines below detail what you can keep an eye out for:
2). Professional Skin Exam - once per year
This can be the tricky part; who do you go to and what type of check do you get. You're probably aware of 3 options:
- Your GP
- Skin/mole clinics
You can come across a range of differing methods as simple as checking out a spot you're particularly concerned about, using a dermatoscope to see the skin layers more effectively or utilising special photography imaging to scan skin. The person you're seeing for your annual skin check should be throughly checking all areas of your body listed above in the self check section, as well as any spots you've pointed out that concern you (if any).
GP's - not all are created equal when it comes to skin. Some GP's may not have had a large dermatology focus when in med school, but some may have opted for additional skin speciality training once graduated. Most GPs list their speciality areas on their website, so check these out or ask clinic reception if any GPs in the clinic specialise in skin. This option can be cheaper, but less reliable if your not 100% sure your GP is as knowledgeable as you'd like in this area.
Skin/Mole clinics - These can vary greatly so find out who's performing the checks. It can range from a non medical 'skin technician,' a registered nurse with speciality skin training or GP's who have specialised training in skin. If the clinics send your results to an external dermatologist, check if this dermatologist is registered to practice in Australia that you can see if required or if they are completely external and overseas.
Dermatologists - If you want to go straight to a skin expert, book in to see your GP and ask for a referral to a Dermatologist. Dermatologist are doctors who have done years of extensive training specifically in skin. They are the skin experts and who any of the above places would send you to if there was anything serious they picked up during their examination. They will asses your skin throughly from head to toe, including skin under the nails and between the toes. You will be asked about your general health and if theres any lesions or spots that you're concerned about. Prices can vary, so you can ring the clinic you've been referred to by your GP to get a skin check cost approximate and wait time. Like any medical specialists appointment it can roughly range anywhere between $150 - $400 depending if there's anything detected.
So, now you know your options don't wait any longer - go and book that skin check.