More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined! A head to toe skin examination by a medical provider is the best way to catch skin cancer early, which is also when it’s most treatable. Most people have spots on their skin that are not worrisome (for example, skin tags, sunspots and benign moles). Although these can be treated, a skin exam generally focuses on any spots that have the potential to be cancerous.
Preparing for the exam: It’s best to come to your appointment without makeup, nail polish or hair products. The better the provider can see your natural skin, nails, and hair the more effective the examination will be. Also, it’s helpful to make note of any areas that stand out to you. Patients are often very good at noticing when there has been a change to a particular “spot,” so any areas you identify will require special attention.
During the exam: Once you are in the examination room, the doctor’s assistant will ask you to disrobe and put on a patient gown (undergarments can be worn under the gown). The doctor’s assistant will take a medical history including, sun exposure, sunburns, and ask about any specific moles or other spots that might be of concern. The provider will adjust your gown to systematically examine the skin on each area of your body. It is possible to have skin cancer even in areas that don’t get a lot of sun exposure. If you prefer a more limited exam (say, just the waist up, or only certain moles) just let us know before we begin the examination.
As the provider examines your skin they may use a hand-held dermatoscope which is a specialized device used to magnify and illuminate the various layers of the skin. Don’t worry if the provider might seem to be scanning each area of the body quickly. Our Dermatologists, Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are well-trained and can quickly identify any suspicious areas. When your provider comes to a spot that you are worried about, point it out so that any concerns that you may have can be addressed. If the doctor sees a suspicious spot or lesion they might be able to treat it with cryotherapy (a quick spray of liquid nitrogen) or it may require a biopsy. Specific instructions and explanation will be provided at the visit if a biopsy is needed and you might need to return for follow up treatment.
Because everyone’s skin is different, the amount of time it takes to complete the skin cancer screening varies from patient to patient. Because of this, the provider might not have time to address all of your skin care needs at the skin cancer screening visit, and you may be asked to make a follow up appointment to discuss other specific concerns.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that all adults perform regular self-exams of their skin and have their skin examined once per year by a trained medical provider. If there is a history of skin cancer, more frequent visits are recommended.