If you’re conscientious about your health, you exercise, watch what you eat, and see your physician periodically for a physical exam. And you might have your doctor screen you for certain types of cancer. Still, you might be missing one critical screening, both at your doctor’s office and at home: a check for melanoma symptoms.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and melanoma is the deadliest. While most melanomas form on easily visible areas of your skin exposed to the sun, they can develop anywhere, including on hard-to-see areas such as your back, scalp, and the back of your neck.
Fortunately, early melanoma symptoms and other skin cancers are visible and can be treated effectively. You just have to know what to look for and thoroughly check all your skin. You also should undergo regular skin exams by a healthcare professional.
Melanoma on Back? Checking for Symptoms
Many experts recommend performing skin self-exams at least every one to three months to check for melanoma and other skin cancer symptoms. Do the exam in a well-lit room. Remove all your clothing, and use a full-length mirror to inspect your skin from head to toe.
It’s been said that melanoma is the one time when it’s appropriate to turn your back on your spouse. In other words, have your spouse or partner help you examine your skin for melanoma on back, neck, buttocks, and back of thighs. Or, at the very least, use a hand-held mirror to view those difficult-to-see areas. Also, ask your hairstylist to check for any potential trouble spots on your scalp.
The ABCDEs of Melanoma Symptoms
Look for new marks and changes in existing moles, as well as the “ugly ducklings”—unusual moles that look unlike other moles or skin blemishes. When examining your skin, remember the “ABCDEs” of melanoma symptoms:
Asymmetry: The shape of one-half of the mole is different from the other.
Border: The edges of the mole are usually ragged, blurred, or irregular, and the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
Color: The mole is unevenly colored; it could be shades of black, brown, tan, white, gray, red, or blue.
Diameter: The mole or other skin mark is larger than a quarter-inch, or about the diameter of a pencil eraser. (Note that some melanomas may be smaller.)
Evolution: The mole or lesion is evolving—changing in size, shape, or color
Keep in mind these other potential melanoma symptoms:
- Redness or swelling outside the border of the mole or lesion
- A non-healing sore
- A bleeding or oozing lesion
- Formation of a bump or nodule on the mole or lesion
People with many skin moles are more likely to develop melanoma, although most moles never cause problems. It can be difficult to distinguish between normal and cancerous moles, so tell your doctor about any unusual moles or other suspicious marks on your skin.
A Doctor’s View of Melanoma Symptoms
When detected early, melanoma is very curable with minor surgery. However, it can be deadly once it spreads to the lungs, liver, and other organs. Your prognosis often depends on the length of time before melanoma is diagnosed and the thickness, or depth, of the tumor (known as Breslow’s depth): The greater the depth, the more life-threatening the melanoma. Some types of melanoma are more aggressive than others, but a biopsy is necessary to tell how deep or fast-growing the melanoma is.
So, it’s important to have your skin examined by a physician, especially if you’ve had melanoma or abnormal moles, have a strong family history of the disease, are light-skinned and freckle easily, or you spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun.
Some research suggests that people who undergo a full skin exam by their primary care physician or a dermatologist are more likely to have their melanomas found when they’re thinner, thus improving their prognosis. Ask your physician about full skin exams and, based on your risk, how frequently you should have them.
Do Your Part to Prevent Melanoma
Take these steps to reduce your risk of melanoma and other skin cancers or avoid them altogether:
- Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 40 to 50. Apply sunscreen a half-hour before you go outdoors, and reapply it every two hours that you’re outside, or more frequently if you’re in the water. If your hair is thinning, use a sunscreen spray or liquid to protect your scalp.
- As much as possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants while working or playing outdoors. Wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers your face, ears, and the back of your neck. Look for sun-protective clothing that provides an SPF of 15 to 100.
- Avoid outdoor activities between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation is at its greatest.
- Wear sunglasses with a UV coating, and make sure the label states that they block 99 to 100 percent of UV rays.
- Stay away from tanning beds and sunlamps.
- Understand your risk. People with fair complexions, red hair, blue eyes, and freckles are at greater risk of melanoma and other skin cancers than those with darker complexions. The risk of melanoma is also higher in men, older adults, and people with a strong family history of melanoma.
Originally in published April 2016 and updated.