Knowing Your Skin Can Save Your Life

Jan 10, 2018 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Knowing Your Skin Can Save Your Life

image by: leremy

It’s uncomfortable to entertain even the possibility of cancer. But there’s one type of cancer you are basically sure to survive if you take just a little preventive action.

Most people’s conception of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—is the kind of thing that might be documented on a TV show with a title like Moles Gone Bad. And to be sure, any existing mole that changes shape or color should be checked out by a dermatologist, but quick.

But an August 2017 review of 38 studies by a team at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia found a surprising pattern: of over 20,000 documented melanomas, less than 30 percent of arose from existing moles. The implication is that, as important as it is to monitor changes to your existing moles, it’s no less important to recognize the appearance of new moles. (Technically, a melanoma is not a mole, but because even a doctor cannot always tell the difference by looking, the difference is beside the point here.)

"Patients and physicians should be aware that skin without moles is more at risk than moles to develop a melanoma," lead researcher Riccardo Pampena told CBS News. “[…] Not only moles, but the whole-body surface should be monitored by patients and physicians." 

Although the medical establishment does not go so far as to recommend yearly skin examinations, unless an individual has a personal or family history of skin cancer—in which case it may be advisable to see a dermatologist as often as four times per year.

In the dermatological community, however, the standard recommendation is that even those not at heightened risk receive at least a general skin examination annually. “One recent study found that sufficient proof does not yet exist to prove that self-examination or whole-body skin exams reduce deaths from skin cancer,” wrote Dr. Ronald Moy, president-elect of the American Academy of Dermatology, in 2009. “But simple common sense says otherwise: The earlier you find a skin cancer, the easier it is to treat successfully. […] At the least, your primary care physician should evaluate your skin during your annual health examination.”

But there is agreement across the medical community—including the American Cancer Society—that everyone should perform a self-examination on a monthly basis. To this end, the Skin Cancer Foundation provides a handy body map to help you monitor your moles. And because it’s even easier to keep track of the appearance of new moles than it is changes to existing moles, using such a tool is an effective way to heed implications of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia study.

"Because the disease is more likely to appear as a new growth, […] it's important for everyone to familiarize themselves with all the moles on their skin and look for not only changes to those moles, but also any new spots that may appear,” says Caterina Longo, one of the study’s co-authors.

Another part of knowing your skin is knowing how to protect it. Surprisingly, despite nearly universal agreement among doctors that we all should be using sunscreen, a 2015 survey found that only about one-fourth of Americans regularly apply sunscreen, while over one-third literally never use it.

As if that isn’t bad enough, results of a separate 2015 survey suggest that less than half of consumers understand the definition of sun protection factor (SPF). One likely indication of such a lack of understanding is that consumers don’t know that, while all sunscreens with SPFs help protect against UV-A rays, only “broad spectrum protection” sunscreens also protect against UV-B rays, which can also cause cancer.

The good news about melanoma is that, if caught early, it has one of the highest survival rates among all cancers. That is, of course, a big “if.” But there’s another piece of good news: unlike with most cancers, with melanoma you can basically guarantee early detection. All you have to do is look.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information:

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