Learn the ABCDEs for Spotting Skin Cancer
May 28, 2019
Learn the ABCDEs for Spotting Skin Cancer
Woman in hat putting on sunscreen

The official first day of summer falls in June, which for many people means a lot of time outdoors. Although getting out during the warm weather provides its own health benefits, heading outdoors without the proper skin protection can do the exact opposite. And if you’re prone to forgetting to apply sunscreen, you’re at risk for developing skin cancer.

Raising awareness about skin cancer is highly important, considering that more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the United States than all other cancers combined, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.

To ensure prompt diagnosis, Patrick Keehan, D.O, a dermatologist and physician on the medical staff at Keehan Dermatology, recommends that adults of all ages see a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening, but how often you need to get checked will depend on your risk factors.

“If someone has a family history of melanoma, I would like to see them annually. If someone doesn’t have a family history of melanoma but has a history of atypical moles, I want to see them yearly as well,” Keehan explains. “Tanning bed history, while it increases the risk of skin cancer greatly, doesn’t mean that patient needs to be seen on a regular basis.”

In addition to seeing a dermatologist regularly, Keehan says that adults should perform a monthly at-home skin exam to check for any suspicious moles or skin changes.

To check your skin, first examine the front and back of your body using a mirror. For areas that are difficult to see, such as the back of the leg, a handheld mirror or asking a significant other for help can make these spots do not go unchecked.

Keehan says in addition to teaching patients how to perform a skin check, he also teaches them the ABCDEs of how to spot an irregular mole or spot.

Asymmetry (one half does not mirror the other) 

Border (irregular outer edge)

Color (two or more colors)

Diameter (6 mm or greater, or the size of a pencil eraser)

Evolving (a mole that is changing)

If a mole has two or more of these qualities, or you have any questions or are unsure about an area, you should schedule an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as possible.

There are four types of skin cancer to be on the lookout for: actinic keratosis (AK), basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma.

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratoses are precancerous growths that commonly look like dry, scaly patches or spots. AKs usually:

  • Occur on areas of the skin that get a lot of sun exposure, such as the head, neck, hands and forearms.
  • Usually develop in people 40 years of age or older.

Actinic keratosis is the most common precancer, affecting more than 58 million Americans. In the early stages, AKs are frequently so small that they are recognized by touch rather than sight. They feel as if you were running a finger over sandpaper. Although they develop slowly, early diagnosis is important because AKs can progress to squamous cell carcinoma. By seeing a dermatologist regularly, AKs can be treated before they become skin cancer.

Basal Cell Carcinomas

According to the AAD, basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, with more than 4.3 million cases diagnosed in the United States each year. BCCs usually develop in people who have fair skin, but can also occur in people with darker skin tones. BCCs 


  • Appear as flesh-colored, pearl-like bumps or pinkish patches of skin.
  • Occur on the head, neck and arms, but can form anywhere on the body.
  • Develop after years of frequent sun exposure or indoor tanning.

Early diagnosis and treatment for BCC is important because it can invade the surrounding tissue and grow into the nerves and bones, causing damage and disfigurement.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, basal cell carcinoma is the most common cancer in Caucasians, Hispanics, Chinese Asians and the Japanese, and about 245,000 BCCs are linked to indoor tanning.

Squamous Cell Carcinomas

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, with more than one million cases diagnosed in the United States each year. SCCs usually develop in people who have light skin, but can also develop in darker-skinned people. SCCs typically:

  • Appear as firm red bumps, scaly patches, or sores that heal and then reopen.
  • Occur on areas of skin that get frequent sun exposure, such as the rim of the ear, face, neck, arms, chest and back. 

Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent damage and disfigurement caused by SCCs growing deep in the skin, and can also stop it from spreading to other areas of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 5 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can reduce the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent, and about 168,000 SCCs are linked to indoor tanning.


Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, with one person dying from it every hour, and it is estimated that 178,560 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.

Although skin cancer can occur in people of any race or ethnicity, melanoma is much more common among non-Hispanic Caucasian individuals. More than 90 percent of melanoma cases are diagnosed in this population. The majority of people diagnosed are Caucasian males over the age of 55, but until age 49, Caucasian women are more likely to develop melanoma. According to the American Cancer Society, on average, one in 27 Caucasian men and one in 42 Caucasian women will develop melanoma in their lifetimes.

Skin Cancer Prevention Basics

While skin cancer isn’t always preventable, the following tips can help you better protect your skin:

  • Know your risk. The National Cancer Institute reports that individuals with fair skin, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes, and/or a family history of skin cancer naturally have a higher skin cancer risk.
  • Practice sun safety. The American Cancer Society recommends avoiding direct sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on all exposed skin.
  • Skip the tanning bed. The artificial rays used in tanning beds are just as dangerous as direct sunlight. Studies published in the International Journal of Cancer showed that those who tan before age 35 increase their melanoma risk by 75 percent.

Your skin health plays a role in your overall physical health. Visit TexasHealth.org/Provider to find a dermatologist near you.

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