The only way to stop skin cancer is to spot it early, and there's no better way than with quarterly head-to-toe skin checks. "Patients who regularly examine their bodies have an intuitive sense when something has changed or is wrong," reports Helene Rosenzweig, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine. So that you, too, will know if and when something suspicious crops up—as it will on more than 900,000 Americans this year, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation—check out this skin-cancer-screening guide.
Actinic keratoses (AK) Rough, scaly, slightly raised patches that range in color from brown to red, AKs occur most commonly on severely sun-damaged skin, particularly on the face. Because 2 to 12 percent of AK cases develop into squamous-cell carcinomas, the patches should always be removed by a doctor via freezing, heating, or chemically treating the affected skin with topical agents.
Basal-cell carcinoma (BCC) BCC is the most common form of cancer, including skin cancer; it accounts for about 80 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers. Tumors usually look like pearly bumps with broken blood vessels running through them. "Patients often describe them as pimples that don't go away," says Dr. Rosenzweig, who advises having any spot that persists for more than a few weeks checked out by a physician. Less commonly, BCCs can also look like a patch of pink, dried skin that doesn't smooth out with moisturizer, or a scarlike area that is white, yellow, or waxy.
Squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC) The second most common skin cancer, SCCs usually appear on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ear, neck, lips, and backs of the hands. They may take on several forms, including a wartlike growth; a persistent, scaly red patch with irregular borders; an open sore that persists for weeks; or an elevated growth with a central depression that may rapidly increase in size—all of which may sometimes crust or bleed. (A word to the wise: Report any lesion that bleeds spontaneously to a physician. "Bleeding is a biologic sign that the skin isn't normal," notes Dr. Rosenzweig.)
Malignant melanoma (MM) The most deadly form of skin cancer, MM may show up as a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole, or the appearance of a new mole or pigmented spot on the skin. Early diagnosis is critical (when still limited to the outermost layer of skin, MM—which metastasizes rapidly—is almost 100 percent curable), so watch for the ABCDEs: Asymmetry (the mole's two halves don't match); Border irregularity (edges are ragged, notched, or blurred); Color (the mole has more than one hue: black, brown, red, blue, white); Diameter (anything greater than the size of a pencil eraser should be considered suspicious); and Enlargement.