Why Go To The Dermatologist
Dermatologists can be helpful in treating a plethora of skin conditions — from acne, eczema, rosacea, and skin cancer to hair loss and nail issues. But since May is Skin Cancer Awareness month (and this is a blog and not a book!), we’ll be focusing on the importance of skin screenings and the role they play in preventing skin cancer for the purposes of this post.
Studies have shown that nonmelanoma skin cancer diagnoses have risen 77% between 1994 and 2014, while from 1970–2009, there was an 800% increase in melanoma diagnosis in young women 18–39 and a 400% increase in men of the same age. We don’t throw these statistics out to scare anyone, but just as a cautionary tale that this is something everyone should have top of mind — from daily prevention to annual screenings. Prevention and early detection truly does save lives!
Daily prevention includes daily sunscreen application, plus wearing protective clothing and seeking shade during peak UV hours. Our Sunscreen 101 post dives deeper into this, so we’d reco checking that out if you haven’t yet!
However, even the most vigilant sunscreen slatherers should receive skin cancer screenings — a visual examination of moles, birthmarks, and other marks on the skin done by a dermatologist to detect melanoma and other skin cancers.
Who Should Get An Annual Skin Check
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation from experts on how often the general population should get a skin exam. However, if you’ve never been to the dermatologist for a head-to-toe screening, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment to get that initial check and discuss with your doctor how often they’d recommend coming in from there. Yet it is advised for those who meet certain risk factors to receive a skin screening at least once a year. These risk factors include anyone who:
- Has a history of melanoma, or other skin cancers or precancerous skin lesions
- Has a relative who’s had melanoma
- Has a large number of moles or a history of atypical moles
- Has a history of tanning bed use
- Has a history of blistering sun burns
- Has a history of significant regular sun exposure through activities such as boating or living in a sunny location, or occupations such as landscaping or construction
- Is an organ transplant recipient
How To Find A Derm
Dermatologists also aren’t one-size-fits all, as each has a different specialty. Derm disciplines include medical, surgical, and cosmetic; your doc could be one, two, or even all of the above. Every derm is trained to spot and often remove moles to some capacity, but it’s likely you’ll want to receive your annual skin check from a medical dermatologist, and then perhaps working with a surgical derm if any spots turn out to be cancerous.
To find a dermatologist appointment, sites like ZocDoc can be a great starting place, as is word of mouth recos from friends, family, and coworkers. Plus, the American Academy of Dermatology Association has resources for folks without health insurance.
Know Before You Go
The day of your appointment, it’s generally recommended to remove makeup, nail polish, jewelry, or anything else that could obstruct the skin. Sometimes at doctor’s appointments, it can be easy to get a bit overwhelmed, so performing a self-check at home to look for any unusual spots in your skin (i.e. moles/growths that are new, have changed over time, are itchy, bleed) is a good idea. Take note of that, plus any family members who have had skin cancer, as the derm may want to know which type and when they had the cancer. Bring a list of current medications and supplements, including their dosages. Plus, a list of skincare products you’re currently using may also be helpful.
What To Expect
In total, the screening should take about 10-20 minutes. You’ll get into a medical exam gown, and your doctor should check every inch of your skin from head to toe. This is also the time to flag any funky spots you’ve noticed. Your doctor will be checking for the ABCDEs of each mole: asymmetry, border irregularity, color (varying shades within), diameter (larger than ¼ inch), and evolving (changing over time). Signs of a good derm include if they perform a thorough exam that doesn’t feel rushed to you, they take your concerns seriously, and they communicate clearly with you what the next steps are. If you don’t find the experience to be affirming and comfortable, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “dumping” your derm, and finding a new one for your next check-up, or even follow-up appointment.
In The Clear: No need for an immediate follow-up? Woo hoo! Check with your doctor on how often they advise you to schedule appointments going forward.
Biopsy: If your doctor thinks a mole or spot could be a problem, you might be advised to receive a biopsy, which is how your doctor will determine if a spot is benign (aka harmless), or a form of cancer. During the procedure, the area is numbed, and you’ll feel a bit of pressure or tugging. As someone who’s been “biopsied” a handful of times, I can speak to this firsthand — acknowledging that everyone’s bodies and pain receptors are different, of course!
The main pain or discomfort I’ve felt around a biopsy is post-op in the initial days as I’m getting used to the new scar. But, your doctor should provide you with recommendations for pain management and all the supplies you’ll need to heal the spot ASAP. However, to me, any sort of temporary physical discomfort was ultimately very worth it to know if that “funky mole” was going to be an issue or not. After the procedure, a sample of your mole is tested at a lab, and the office will inform you of the results usually within a week or two. And while of course biopsies are crucial in early detection of skin cancers, it may bring you comfort to know that an analysis of medical records found 83 percent of biopsy results were benign, or non-cancerous.
Diagnosis: If the biopsy comes back showing a skin cancer, your doctor will walk you through what to do next — including what your specific diagnosis is and the treatment options available to you.
Chiara Kramer, Heyday’s Operations & Internal Communications/Area Leader, received a skin cancer diagnosis a few years ago. “I had this spot on my left cheek that I thought was a zit that just wouldn't go away. After about 6 months (and a honeymoon in Australia where it got a lot worse) I finally went to the dermatologist fully expecting him to give me some cream and send me on my way. He took one look at my cheek and said it needed to be biopsied. It turned out to be basal cell carcinoma and I had to have it surgically removed.”
Looking back on the experience, Chiara advises, “If you have an unusual "zit" or mark on your face that lasts more than 4-6 weeks, get it checked out! Also, wear sunscreen. Every day. I cannot stress this enough. I have always been pretty good about it, but because it was on my left side my doctor thought it could have developed just through driving and the car window.”
Looking For Your Perfect Sunscreen?
Like Chiara said, wearing sunscreen daily is one of the best ways to prevent skin damage. Check out our blog on how to find the perfect sunscreen for you, or check out these faves for a great place to start.