Dr. Sara Moghaddam of Atlantic General Dermatology details the risk factors of this potentially deadly disease and urges adults of all ages to begin a regular screening routine
I’m sure at one point in your life you may have asked yourself this: When am I supposed to start getting checked for skin cancer? The truth is that there is no well-established answer for age-appropriate skin cancer screenings like there is for colon or breast cancer. However, the rest of what I’m about to tell you will hopefully give you some better guidance. There is no doubt that there are features that make you more susceptible to skin cancer. Risk factors include light-colored hair and light-colored eyes, fair skin, several moles, any history of tanning-bed use or blistering sunburns, and a decreased immune system due to a medical condition or medication.
Anyone meeting any of these criteria should get screened earlier than others. I would suggest getting a baseline total-body skin exam by a dermatologist at some point in your 20s for your initial screening. I know that may seem shockingly young, but melanoma is the most common cancer in young adults. And basal-cell carcinoma, the most frequent type of skin cancer, can occur at an early age, as well. Just recently, I had a patient in their late 20s whom I diagnosed with basal-cell carcinoma. So you can see, there really is no harm in getting to the dermatologist sooner rather than later.
Based on your initial skin exam and presence of risk factors, your dermatologist can give you better guidance on the necessary frequency of skin cancer screening. In my practice, if I have a 30-year-old patient with several atypical moles, I will see them yearly for skin cancer screening. This is because their risk of developing skin cancer is higher than for the rest of the population. If I have another 30-year-old patient with no suspicious lesions and no risk factors, it would be acceptable for them to get checked every few years.
Now, if you have a family member who was diagnosed with melanoma, does that change anything? Yes, it does. First-degree relatives — that’s parents, siblings or children — should get screened for skin cancer because there is a small percentage of melanoma that can be hereditary.
Next question you ask yourself: What happens during a skin cancer screening? Do I have to get naked? Am I going to be cut? When a patient comes to the office for a skin exam, I give the patient a gown to put on that allows me to take a closer look at the skin. On some lesions I may use a dermatoscope — a special, handheld, magnifying lens, to help me look for qualities of skin cancer. My eyes do all the work! And there is only a biopsy involved if I am highly suspicious for a type of cancer. The screening is simple and does not take a lot of time.
No matter what you may take from this, it is most important to realize that sun exposure is the most important risk factor for the development of skin cancer. We all know that here on the Eastern Shore, being in the sun is a common part of our lives. I urge you to be proactive about your health and make sure to get screened!
ATLANTIC GENERAL DERMATOLOGY