Dermatology is the branch of medical science responsible for the care and treatment of the skin, hair, and nails. A general practice dermatologist is a medically licensed physician trained to treat skin, hair, and nail diseases, and skin cancers. Many dermatologists also have additional training, such as Mohs surgery training for the treatment of skin cancer.
An estimated one in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer at some point in their life. Fortunately, the cure rate is as high as 99% for most skin cancers if they are found and treated early. When cancer, such as melanoma, is not detected and treated early it can move into the lymph nodes and other organs of the body and is potentially fatal. That is why it is important to take your skin seriously and visit a dermatologist regularly if you are at high-risk for skin cancer.
Do I need to visit a dermatologist?
If you have never been checked, consider seeing a dermatologist for an initial assessment. The frequency of future visits depends on risk factors such as age, sun damage, and prior skin cancers. People at high risk for skin cancer should consider visiting a dermatologist at least once a year and more frequently if any changes in the skin are observed.
Who is considered high-risk for skin cancer?
Anyone who has been overexposed to the sun (sunburned) particularly in childhood is at an increased risk for skin cancer. Individuals with fair skin, light colored hair (blonde or red), blue or green eyes, or a family history of skin cancer are also considered at a higher risk than others. Excessive tanning salon exposure or exposure to radiation, immune suppression or organ transplant, and certain chemicals can also increase a person’s risk of skin cancer.
I fit one or some of the high risk factors, now what?
It is important to schedule a visit with a dermatologist to get a baseline of your skin’s health and to let the dermatologist evaluate any moles, spots, lesions, or skin growths. New skin growths or spots can be an indication of skin cancer. It is also important to note that moles and spots you have had for a long time can occasionally change and develop cancerous cells. Thus, it is important to allow an expert to give you a full body skin check to determine if you have any questionable or concerning areas that require a further look. Your dermatologist can also give you advice for self-examinations in between doctor exams. A self-examination makes you your own advocate for early detection and helps you keep your dermatologist informed of any changes that may have the potential for cancerous cells.
What am I looking for during a self-examination?
Everyone should perform regular self-examinations of their skin for signs of changes, even if you do not have any of the high risk factors. Memorize your spots, and then check yourself once a month. If you try to check you self everyday it is difficult to notice changes and you will drive yourself crazy! Signs to look for are rough or scaly areas, especially flat scaly areas that are red or brown; any existing mole or spot that is growing or changing; a lesion that is bleeding, crusty, or painful and does not heal after two weeks or heals and returns; a hard flat or sunken growth; a pearl-shaped lump; and any new suspicious growth. If you observe any of these conditions you should see a dermatologist immediately.