How to Flag Skin Cancer

Your Therapist Offers Another Line of Defense

By Annie Morien

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2010.

It may seem obvious, but your massage therapist really looks at your skin. Massage therapists are trained to observe a person’s skin for cuts, bruises, rashes, and anything unusual before touching it. And this observation doesn’t just stop at first glance. Throughout the course of your session, your massage therapist will keep an eye out for anything on your skin that seems out of the norm, and if warranted, may refer you to a dermatologist or other health-care professional for evaluation. Ultimately, your massage therapist can be an important line of defense in detecting abnormalities on your skin—perhaps even skin cancer.

The Appearance of Skin Cancer

What does skin cancer look like? Skin cancer is a general term for three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cell carcinomas tend to grow slowly and are the most common. They typically appear as a fleshy or pink, shiny (“pearly”) bump or patch, and they develop on sun-exposed areas such as the head, neck, and trunk. Squamous cell carcinomas are also common and look like a scaly pink or brownish bump or patch. They develop on the ears, face, and trunk. Melanomas are the least common type of skin cancer. They can develop on any body area and are the most deadly if not detected early. Melanomas can be large or small, several colors, and can appear irregular, raised, or flat. Keep in mind that skin cancers can grow anywhere on the body, and their appearance may vary.

All skin cancers have the potential to be itchy, irritating, painful, and/or bleed easily. Yet, sometimes the skin cancer is not bothersome at all. If left untreated, all skin cancers have the potential to grow and spread to other parts of the body.

Most skin cancer starts because of damage from ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light penetrates into the superficial (epidermis) and deep (dermis) layers of the skin, altering the molecular structure and DNA of skin cells. Damaged skin cells attempt to repair themselves, but with repeated or significant UV injury—like through sunburns—cells are less likely to repair the damage appropriately. Damaged skin cells may either die from the UV damage or turn into a growing, uncontrollable mass, otherwise known as a malignancy or skin cancer.

In addition to skin cancer, the sun’s UV rays cause premature aging, wrinkles, and sunspots (liver spots) called solar lentigenes. These changes cannot be reversed once the damage occurs.

People most at risk for developing skin cancer are those who spend a lot of time in the sun or who have been severely sunburned. People who have light-colored eyes, hair, and skin are at risk, however, people with dark skin can also develop skin cancer. Other risk factors include family history and a previous diagnosis of skin cancer.

Early Detection Is Key

Skin cancer is easy to detect if you keep in mind one important rule: anything that is new or changing may be skin cancer, as skin cancer tends to change in appearance over time. The signs of skin cancer are easy to remember: A=asymmetrical shape, B=irregular border, C=irregular or multicolored, D=diameter larger than a pencil eraser, and E=evolving. Anything that is unusual about your skin may warrant a trip to your medical provider.

Most skin cancers are curable if detected early. Start by getting a full-body examination by a dermatologist. Then, conduct regular skin exams on yourself, starting at the head and working down. Examine your scalp, face, trunk, arms, and legs. Don’t forget to check armpits, behind the ears, between fingers and toes, on the soles of the feet, and the genitals. Use two mirrors or have someone help you examine each area. Measure the size of each mole, photograph it, write down the details and include the date. Use the same well-lit room for each self-exam. Discuss with your doctor how often to conduct self-exams. Fair-skinned people and those with a history of skin cancer need frequent screenings. And don’t forget to examine children and other family members on a regular basis.

If you notice a new or changing skin spot, make an appointment immediately with your dermatologist. The wait time to see your doctor may take months, so don’t delay making an appointment. Take your photographs or documentation with you to show your doctor how the skin spot has changed.

More than 68,000 new cases of skin cancer and 8,600 skin cancer deaths will occur in the United States this year. Early detection is the key to surviving skin cancer. Check yourself regularly, and if your massage therapist points out something unusual on your skin, heed the warning and get it checked out.