Can I Get Checked for Melanoma Before I Have Symptoms?

Screening means checking for disease in people who don't have any symptoms. Not every type of cancer has guidelines recommending screening--melanoma does. You have a better chance of surviving melanoma if doctors diagnose and treat it early. Early means finding the melanoma when it is thin. A melanoma that is thick (penetrating deeper in the skin) or bleeding is harder to treat than a thin melanoma. The best way to find melanoma early is to have regular skin checkups from a health care provider who is trained to inspect skin. The American Cancer Society recommends regular skin checkups for people over age 20 as part of routine cancer checkups. Even though these skin checkups help increase the chances of finding melanoma early, they don't guarantee that you won't get melanoma or die from it, especially if it's found after you have symptoms.

What Does Melanoma Detection Involve?

Health care providers look for simple characteristics of moles or other skin lesions that make them suspect melanoma of the skin. These are called the ABCDs of melanoma.

a
Asymmetry-The shape of one half does not match the other.

b
Border-The edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.

c
Color-The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, gray, red, pink, or blue may also be seen.

Diameter-Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil (6 millimeters or 1/4 inch).

Asymmetry. This means that the two halves of the mole don't look the same.

Border. With melanoma, the edges of a mole are sometimes blurred or ragged.

Color. Melanomas sometimes have uneven colors. Some have different shades of black, brown, red, pink, white, or blue.

Diameter. This is a measure of the width or length of the melanoma. The diameter of a melanoma is usually greater than that of a pencil eraser, though they can be smaller than this.

Also consider the E in the equation--evolving. It is important to look for changes in moles over time. If you see any changes, make an appointment with you doctor to have the mole checked right away. Not all melanomas look the same. Some have all the ABCD characteristics, while others don't.

These are other symptoms to pay close attention to:

  • Moles that are tender and itch

  • Moles that bleed or have a crusty top

  • Moles that become raised and larger in diameter

You should also learn how to do a skin self-exam and check your own skin, preferably once a month. You should know the pattern of moles blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin. Any new moles or changes in moles already present should be reported to a doctor right away.