Early Detection of Skin Cancer – What to Look For

Living in Central Florida it is especially important to pay attention to your skin’s health. The sun’s UV radiation is stronger here than many other areas of the United States. And, with our pleasant climate, we tend to spend more time outside year around. For these reasons, it is smart to perform monthly self-examinations and see your dermatologist every year for an annual skin check.

Perform Monthly Skin Self-Examinations

The Skin Cancer Foundation actively encourages everyone to practice monthly head-to-toe self-examination of their skin. You should look for any new or changing lesions that might be cancerous or precancerous. When skin cancers is identified and removed early it is almost always curable. Even if you wear sunscreen regularly or are seldom in the sun, it’s important to check your skin often for any notable changes.

Of course for this to be effective, you obviously need to know what you’re looking for.  As a general rule, take note of any new moles or growths or any existing growths that have grown or changed. Lesions that have changed, itch, or bleed are also warning signs that you should consult with a dermatologist.

To encourage early detection of melanoma, a skin cancer that can be life threatening, physicians have developed two specific strategies to help the Average Joe know what to look for – “The ABCDEs” and “The Ugly Duckling”.


A – Asymmetry: Typical moles are not asymmetrical. In other words, if you draw a line through the middle the two sides will match. If your mole is asymmetrical (not even on both sides), this is a warning sign for melanoma.

B – Border:  Regular moles have smooth, even borders. The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven, often scalloped or notched.

C – Color:  Typical moles are usually all one color, most frequently a single shade of brown. Having a variety of colors is another warning signal. A variety of different shades of brown, tan or black could be cause for concern. A melanoma may also become red, white or even blue.

D –  Diameter:  Normal moles tend to be smaller. Melanomas are typically larger in diameter than the eraser on your pencil tip. Keep in mind melanomas may be smaller when first detected. Which leads us to…

E – Evolving:  Common moles look the same over time, with little change. Be on the alert when a mole changes or evolves in any way. This would include any change in size, shape, or color. Also, if the mole has changed and now feels “raised”, or is bleeding, itching or crusting, this points to danger. When a mole has changed in any way since your last self-exam, you should see a dermatologist to be safe.

The Ugly Duckling

In the late 1990s, scientists began to realize that on the same individual, skin lesions that are not dangerous tend to look similar. Melanomas often deviate from this pattern. This realization pointed to the importance of not just looking at the individual lesion in question, but also comparing it to surrounding lesions, looking for an “outlier” in an area of similar-appearing moles. For example, the outlier lesion might be larger or darker than the surrounding moles (Figure A). Or just the opposite, the outlier mole could be small and red surrounded by large dark moles (Figure B). Finally, if the patient has only a few or no other moles, any changing lesion should be considered suspicious (Figure C). These 3 scenarios display outlier lesions or “ugly ducklings”, and should prompt suspicion. If any “ugly duckling” lesion is changing, symptomatic, or deemed atypical, it should be seen by a dermatologist as soon as possible.

Performed regularly, self-examination can identify changes to your skin and is your best chance for the early detection of skin cancer. It should be done often enough that it becomes a habit. For most people, once a month is ideal. But if you have a history of skin cancer or pre-cancerous growths, your dermatologist may recommend more frequent checks. Many people find it helpful to keep notes or even a chart of any moles or lesions that are concerning, so if any changes occur. After the first few times, self-examination should take no more than 10 minutes – a small investment in what could be a life-saving procedure.

Schedule Annual Visits to Your Dermatologist

It is important to have a dermatologist do a full-body exam at least once each year. First, to assure you that any spots, freckles, or moles that you have noticed during your self-exams are normal. Second, to treat any lesions that may be dangerous as soon as possible. Finally, to detect or identify any spots you may have missed.

If you are new to the Central Florida area, are looking for a dermatologist in The Villages or Leesburg Florida areas, or have noticed a lesion that appears abnormal, please contact our office for a consultation.