As an assistant professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, I advise all of my patients to know their skin inside and out. When going in for a skin exam, help your dermatologist by going in knowledgeable about what to look for and where.
Here are eight things you should know before your next skin exam:
1. You'll be naked.
It's hard for a dermatologist to examine skin that's covered by clothing. The exam gown, as revealing as it is, serves purpose. As a rule of thumb, you should be as naked as you are for a gynecologist's exam when getting a skin check.
2. Nail polish is an no-no.
Nail lacquer, gel and acrylic nails are pretty and stylish, but they obscure a total skin exam. The skin at the base of the nailbed can give rise to melanoma and it's easily missed if you're covering it up with polish.
3. Make sure your doctor checks your scalp.
Do you know how many hairstylists pick up abnormalities in the scalp of their clients? Enough that I can tell you don’t let your peak go un-peeked (at). A good once-over in the hairline and scalp is a must for any good, thorough skin exam.
4. Not all spots are created equal.
If you've got moles and freckles, you're not alone. Lots of us love our spots, but pay close attention if one isn't like the other. Specialists call this the "ugly duckling rule," and while not scientific in description, the sentiment is clear: if one of these things is not like the others, get it checked out.
5. Map your moles.
If you have several moles, don’t rely on your naked eye to track them. Ask your dermatologist for mole mapping where he or she will photograph and document your moles in detail. This way, there's a record of exactly where and how large your moles are so when you go back for your next exam, your doctor can track if any have changed.
6. Biopsy matters.
If your skin exam results in removal of a suspicious area, the choice of biopsy matters. You want a biopsy that removes the lesion in question as completely as possible. A shave biopsy is notoriously quick to perform but commonly leaves some of the lesion behind. A punch biopsy is more comprehensive, and more likely to remove the deep layer of the lesion.
7. When in doubt, check it out.
Even if you’ve already had your annual skin check, if something pops up on your skin, get it checked out. For anyone who's had a squamous cell or basal cell carcinoma removed, you should be getting a skin check at least twice a year. If a melanoma has been removed, go more often.