Although our skin is still covered by sweaters and scarves, before long, we’ll be baring our faces, necks and arms to the sun. We all know that sunscreen is crucial to protecting ourselves from premature aging, pigmentation and—most important—skin cancer. Yet another aspect of prevention is early detection of potential problems, so now is the time to take a close look at your skin.

Not all skin cancer looks the same. Because there are several types of skin cancer, there also are several different presentations. “Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type. It typically presents as a ‘pimple’ or sore that does not go away, usually located on a sun-exposed area, such as the face or arm. Sometimes basal cell carcinoma will itch or bleed,” says Dr. Laurin Council, a dermatologist specializing in skin cancer and its treatment with Washington University Physicians.

“Another type of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, usually appears as a scaly growth on a sun-exposed area. If a new lesion appears but does not resolve, itches or bleeds, it’s always a good idea to have it evaluated by a dermatologist. Although less common, skin cancers can also appear on areas that have never been exposed to the sun,” Council says.

More serious than basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can quickly metastasize to internal organs. Recognizing early signs of melanoma is critical to treating the cancer while it is still localized. Symptoms often follow the mnemonic device ABCDE: asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation in the same ‘mole’ or pigmented spot, diameter greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser), and evolving lesions that change over time.

“Moles and suspicious lesions that fulfill the ABCDE criteria can be biopsied to confirm a diagnosis,” says Dr. Lawrence Samuels, St. Luke’s Hospital chief of dermatology. He reminds individuals to have any concerning changes assessed. “Changes in moles do not always indicate melanoma, but any change needs to be addressed by a trained medical professional and not the individual. If the patient makes a mistake on a melanoma, it can be fatal.”

Skin-cancer screening performed by a physician should be part of a regular physical exam. However, you know your body best and should be aware of its markings in order to recognize any suspicious changes. “There is no substitute for self-skin examinations, just as there is no excuse for a woman not to do a monthly breast exam,” Samuels says. “On the skin, look for spots larger than a pencil eraser that are becoming scaly, not healing, changing in color or bleeding; and immediately seek medical evaluation, preferably with a dermatologist. Check all skin areas, including the back and back of the legs, palms, soles, etc.”

Skin cancer, when caught early, often is curable; and sun protection is the best defense against developing it. Wear sunscreen year-round and pay attention to your body—it will send you warning signs that shouldn’t be ignored.

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