Authored by Revere Health

Skin Cancer Screening 101

April 4, 2018 | DermatologyValue-Based Care

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and like many cancers, it is highly treatable when detected in its earliest stages. The two most common types of skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinoma, are the easiest to treat, but the third type of skin cancer, melanoma, is more dangerous and deadly. All three types of skin cancer can be disfiguring and expensive to treat.

In addition to practicing proper prevention techniques—wearing sunscreen, avoiding indoor and outdoor tanning, wearing protective clothing and others—it’s important for high-risk individuals to get regular skin cancer screenings.

What is skin cancer screening?

The screening process for skin cancer is simple and usually takes about 10 minutes. During a skin exam, your doctor will check the skin for moles, growths, birthmarks, pigmentation, etc. that may be abnormal. If you are getting a full body exam, you’ll be asked to change into a medical gown.

A visual examination of the skin can only give your doctor a clue as to what may be cancerous, but it cannot give a definitive diagnosis. If your doctor does find something abnormal, he or she will perform a biopsy on the suspected cancer by numbing the area and scraping off the tissue. A pathologist will then test the sample under a microscope to determine if cancer is present.

How often should you be screened?

There aren’t official guidelines as to how often you should be screened for skin cancer, but many doctors recommend a baseline exam to determine your risk factors. High-risk individuals will need routine screening. Finding skin cancer does not always guarantee improved health or a longer lifespan, especially if the skin cancer is advanced, but early detection can increase the ability to treat and remove the cancer.

Consider annual skin cancer screenings if you have a personal or family history of skin cancer, or if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Frequent and prolonged exposure to the sun
  • A lighter natural skin color
  • A history of sunburns, especially if your sunburns have blistered
  • Certain types and a large number of moles
  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Skin that burns, reddens or freckles easily
  • Skin that becomes painful in the sun
  • A history of indoor tanning

Are there any risks?

Although skin cancer screenings are considered extremely safe, there are minor risks involved including the possibility of false-positive or false-negative results and potential scarring as a result of a biopsy.

Screen yourself regularly

Even if you don’t have one of the many risk factors of skin cancer, it’s important to perform self-checks on your skin several times a year and notify your doctor if you come across any changes.

Use the ABCDE rule to look for signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: If you were to draw a line in the middle of your mole and one half of the mole did not match the other, it would be considered asymmetrical, which is a warning sign for melanoma.
  • Border: A benign (non-cancerous) mole has smooth edges. Borders of a melanoma are often irregular, notched, jagged or blurred.
  • Color: Another warning sign of melanoma is a mole that is multi-colored. Look for moles that are shades of brown, black or tan, or moles that have patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • Diameter: Melanomas are usually larger than benign moles. Take note of moles that are larger than ¼ inch across (roughly the size of a pencil eraser).
  • Evolving: If your mole starts to change size, shape or color, it may be a sign of melanoma.

Although less dangerous, it’s still important to look for signs of basal and squamous cell carcinomas. These types of cancers usually develop on parts of the body that receive frequent sun exposure such as the face, head and neck.

Common signs include:

  • Raised, red and possibly itchy patches of skin
  • Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown, or black areas
  • Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a wheel
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
  • Wart-like growths

If you do notice any changes in your skin, or have one or more risk factors for skin cancer, talk to your doctor about regular screenings. Your doctor can also answer questions about prevention and treatment.

Our experienced physicians share a collaborative approach that puts our patients’ needs first. Our focus includes surgical dermatology, skin cancer, pediatric dermatology and general dermatological issues and conditions. We provide cutting-edge diagnostics and treatments to help you maintain good health and great skin.


“Your Skin Cancer Physical: What to Expect.” WebMD.

“What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer?” CDC.

“What is Skin Cancer?” CDC.

“How to Spot Skin Cancer.” American Cancer Society.


The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.