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How to Do a Monthly Skin Exam

This information describes the warning signs of melanoma and teaches you how to do a monthly skin exam. You can do the exam yourself or with the help of a spouse, partner, family member, or friend.

Melanoma

Melanoma is cancer of the melanocytes. These are the cells that give your skin its color. Melanoma can't be completely prevented, but it is much more treatable when it is detected at an early stage. Protecting yourself from the sun is important to prevent melanoma. However, it is even more important to examine your skin thoroughly each month. This will help you find any suspicious looking mole or spot on your skin early.

ABCDEs of melanoma

Warning signs of melanoma are often called the “ABCDEs” of melanoma.

Look for the following on any moles or spots on your skin:

A - Asymmetry: One half doesn't match the appearance of the other half.

B - Border: The borders (edges) are uneven and irregular.

C - Color: The color is not uniform. A number of different shades of brown, tan, or black could appear.

D - Diameter: The diameter is more than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).

E - Evolution: There is a change in the size, shape, symptoms (such as itching or tenderness), surface (especially bleeding), or color.

Ugly duckling mole

Another warning sign of melanoma is called the “ugly duckling mole.” This is a mole or spot on your skin that looks or feels different than similar ones on your body.

Skin Exam

General guidelines

  • Do your skin exam in a well-lit room.
  • It is fine if you can perform a skin exam alone, but it may be a good idea to ask a family member or friend to check your scalp and back. Your hair dresser can help find or monitor spots on your scalp.
  • Examine one side of your body at a time, from top to bottom. Start with one side of your body, move on to the back of your body, and then examine the other side of your body.
  • Remember to look for the ABCDEs of melanoma and any ugly duckling moles. Use the body maps at the end of this resource to record and monitor any spots on your skin. At your next appointment, tell your doctor and nurse about any area of concern. Bring the body maps with you.
  • Make it easy to remember to do your monthly exam. Do it when you do something else at the same time each month. If you have a personal calendar, put in a reminder on the dates you should do your skin exam.
  • Visit your gynecologist, dentist, and eye doctor regularly. They may see early signs of possible skin cancer. If so, they will send you to your dermatologist.

Equipment

You will need the following equipment to do a thorough skin exam:

  • Full-length mirror
  • Hand-held mirror
  • Comb or hair dryer
  • Body maps
  • Pen or pencil to record any observations

Steps

  1. Start by checking any moles and birthmarks. Look for:
  • Any changes, especially a new mole or change in skin color
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Any changes in the size, shape, texture, or color of an existing mole
  1. Look at your face, neck, ears, and scalp. Use a comb or a hair dryer on a cool setting to move your hair so that you can see your skin better. You can ask a partner to do this for you.
  2. Look closely at your fingernails, palms of your hands, forearms, and upper arms.
  3. Look at the front and back of your body in the full-length mirror. Use the hand mirror as necessary. Then, raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
  4. Examine the back, front, and sides of your legs. Look in between your buttocks and around your genital area.
  5. Sit down and examine your feet closely. Look at your toenails, the space between your toes, and the soles of your feet.
 

Body maps

If there is a spot that you are concerned about, mark its location on the body map below. Use this table to record the date you saw it, its size, and what it looks like.

Date Size Characteristics
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

If You Find Any ABCDEs

If you find any ugly duckling moles or moles or spots on your skin showing the ABCDEs, mark it on your body map. Then, call your doctor. It may not be melanoma, but your doctor or nurse will decide if you need to see a dermatologist. If you notice any small changes to these moles or spots, tell your doctor at your next routine visit.