5 Tips for Spotting Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers

People who have a family history of melanoma are more likely to develop the disease. “If you’ve gotten a lot of blistering sunburns, maybe five by the time you’re 18,” or used a tanning bed, you are at increased risk, Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff, the president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, said. “That really bumps it up, the way smoking bumps up lung cancer.”

Your skin color plays a role, too. People with light skin, blond or red hair, blue eyes, or many freckles and moles are more prone to developing skin cancer than people of color — it’s more than 20 percent more common in white people than Black people, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s because most skin cancers are sun related, and darker skin is less at risk for sun-induced cancers.

In people of all races, however, skin cancers can also present in places that do not regularly get sun exposure, like the hands or soles of their feet, the mucous membranes (gums, lips) and the nail beds. These cancers may be more deadly, because they are often diagnosed at a later stage.

And although melanoma is more common when you’re older, young people can get skin cancer, too. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30, especially young women. The Cleveland Clinic says you should “always be suspicious of a new mole that develops after the age of 30.” Many are harmless, but it’s good to check with a dermatologist, just to be safe.

Come to the doctor’s appointment prepared to point out any unusual spots you’ve noticed, and to have your entire body checked. “It is every square centimeter of skin,” said Dr. Ashwani Rajput, the director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center for the Washington, D.C., region, who treats patients with melanoma.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you remove makeup before your exam, if you wear any, so it will be easier to spot suspicious moles.

“Leave any embarrassment at the door,” Dr. Sarnoff said, adding, “You’re there to have your skin looked at.”

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