How to spot melanoma and other skin cancers

Many of us have had our share of sunburns over the years, which we now know can raise our risk of skin cancer.

So, when should you start getting your skin checked?

Dr. Loren Krueger, a dermatologist at The Emory Clinic, says they don't really have specific age guidelines for that.

"We rely on you quite a bit for how your skin is doing," Dr. Krueger says.  "But we're always open to establishing and getting a sense of what your skin looks like and establishing what your risk is for skin cancers."

And Dr. Krieger recommends keeping an eye on your skin, looking for spots that are new, changing. 

"Dermatologists are always here for you if you have any lesion of concern," she says. "So, any spot of concern, anything that's growing, changing, if it's bleeding, if it's painful. "

We like to talk about the ABCD's of melanoma," she says.  "Anything that's asymmetric, right, has an irregular border. So it's not well-defined. There's something that juts out.  If the colors are not uniform. So, if you were to cut something in quarters, is one quarter different than the next? That's a concerning sign. If it's a larger spot of yours, or if it's evolving."

Fortunately, she says, most skin cancers are slow-growing and tend not to spread to other areas of the body.

"In fact, basal cell skin cancer, which is tied to a history of sunburns, is the most common type of cancer, period. So we see it very commonly, and we don't think it'll travel to, for example, lymph nodes, lung, kidneys, anything like that."

" Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that happens from kind of your lifetime exposure to the sun, not just sunburns, but lifetime exposure to the sun, and that one, although it is also slow growing, we worry about it a little bit more."  

A melanoma, Krueger says, is the one you want to catch as early as possible, describing what to look for on your skin.

"Usually a dark, abnormal spot sometimes becomes raised, bleeding painful," she explains.  "Those are worrisome and those can lead to involvement of the lymph nodes, metastasis, involvement of other organs. And there are deaths from melanoma as well. So we do want to prevent that as much as possible.:

 Dr. Krueger says don't beat yourself up if you've had some bad sunburns in the past.

"But, if you have any suspicion at all that you may have a spot, I think it's time to come in and get checked," she says.  "Or, if you're noticing that you have, you know, freckles, sun damage signs, you may be the type that's that's due for a total body skin check.