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Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening (via Babble)Happy Melanoma Monday! Whee! May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and today is Melanoma Monday, a day dedicated to raising awareness about this potentially deadly form of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is a very big deal to me. My grandfather had both melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer that originates in the blood vessels but causes lesions to appear on the skin. Kaposi sarcoma (KS) is often associated with AIDS, but is also occurs in people of Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern heritage. In these populations, it is found most commonly in older people, and it is seen more often in men than in women. KS is also seen in Equitorial Africa, where it is often found in men and women under 40, and even in children.

I’m probably not much at risk for KS. I’m not an elderly man of Mediterranean descent. But then again, neither was my grandfather. As far as we know, he was 100 percent German, as blond and Aryan as they come.

However, I am very much at risk for melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, The risk factors for melanoma are:

  • Blistering sunburns as a child.
  • Cumulative sun exposure. People who live in areas with more sunlight (e.g., Florida, Hawaii, Australia) develop more skin cancers. Tanning beds and tanning booths also increase exposure to UV rays, increasing the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.
  • Moles, moles, and more moles. And atypical or “dysplastic” moles.
  • Skin type: people with fairer skin and lighter eye color are at increased risk. You can take the Skin Cancer Foundation’s skin type quiz to find out just how much your skin type puts you at risk.
  • Personal history: If you’ve had one melanoma, you’re at greater risk for more. Also, if you’ve had any type of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, you’re at great risk for melanoma.
  • Family history: About one in every 10 patients diagnosed with the disease has a family member with a history of melanoma. If your mother, father, siblings or children have had a melanoma, you are in a melanoma-prone family. Each person with a first-degree relative diagnosed with melanoma has a 50 percent greater chance of developing the disease than people who do not have a family history of the disease. Research has found genetic mutations that contribute to familial melanoma.

I have a lot of those factors. I am a pale person. Really, really pale. There are places where my skin is kind of…clear. I had multiple blistering sunburns as a child; I have scars from them. (Apparently when I was a kid, our “sunscreen” had an SPF factor of “coconut.”) I have a ton of moles, and every year my dermatologist removes some; at least one is always dysplastic. And then there’s the family history.

On the same side of my family, my grandmother survived breast cancer, my mother died of ovarian cancer, and my uncle died of lung cancer that metastasized to his brain. So, yeah, I take cancer prevention and cancer screenings seriously.

At one point, my moles were changing so rapidly that I went to the dermatologist every six months. More recently, this has slowed down, and I’m back to going just one a year for my annual “Mole Patrol.” Of course, if I see something unusual, I go in for a check in between my regular appointments.

Based on the advice of skin cancer screening experts, as well as my own personal experience, here are ten tips to help you get the most out of your annual dermatology appointment.

  • 1. Remove polish from fingernails and toenails. 1 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips to Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    Melanomas can occur under the nailbed, so your dermatologist needs to be able to see your actual nail, not the fabulous new shade of coral polish you've been sporting. While this type of melanoma represents only 3 percent of melanomas in the general population, they represent as much as a third of the melanomas found in dark-skinned ethnic groups, according to a study conducted by Columbia University. Melanomas under the nail can appear as a spot, or as a streak that runs the entire length of the nail bed.   Like any other melanoma, nailbed melanomas are most often brown or black, but other colors are possible, making it easy to mistake it for a bruise under the nail. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 2. Skip the make-up today. 2 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips to Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    So, this may seem obvious, but your dermatologist needs to see your skin, including the skin on your face. If you come in for a skin cancer screening with a face-full of makeup, you may be asked to remove it. If you're uncomfortable being out and about without makeup, schedule your appointment for first thing in the morning, and bring your cosmetics to apply when you're done.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 3. Today is not the day for fancy hair. 3 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips to Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    Hey, you know what gets a ton of sun exposure? The top of your head. That means that your dermatologist will need to look at your scalp. Leave your hair down, or wear a simple ponytail that you can just take out quickly before your exam. I don't even blowdry my hair before my appointments, because damp hair is a little easier to section and part. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto; additional nonsense by Joslyn Gray for Babble)

  • 4. Understand that if your doctor finds a suspicious mole, it’s coming off right now. 4 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    At my first "mole patrol" appointment, I was caught off guard when my dermatologist remarked that a suspicious-looking mole would have to come off, and then he asked the nurse for the numbing agent. I'm used to always needing an appointment for any kind of medical procedure, so somehow in my head I thought I'd have to come back for the mole excision. Nope. Generally, the dermatologist will apply a numbing agent to the skin, then inject some local anesthetic (that's the most painful part of the whole deal, and it's over really quickly), and then go ahead and remove the mole. 

     

    One exception to this may be if the mole is on your face. In that case, you may be referred to a plastic surgeon, who will attempt to minimize scarring.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 5. Wear something comfy. 5 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    Learn from my fail! Yeah, you're going to have to put on a gown anyway for your exam. But if you have a skin biopsy done, the anesthetic will wear off during your drive home. Nothing feels worse than tight clothes over a fresh skin biopsy wound. I once had to have a mole removed that was right at my waist. The entire ride home, the waistband of my jeans was digging into that sucker. Ugh. Now I opt for a soft, loose-fitting dress. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 6. Don’t be embarrassed. 6 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    You can have moles anywhere, and they can be a problem anywhere, including places where the sun don't shine that don't get a lot of sun exposure. Yes, you can have melanoma or other types of skin cancer in your genital/anal region, and lots of people do have moles there. If you go for regular ob/gyn appointments, your gynecologist will look for atypical moles during your exam, and they can also do skin biopsies in the office. However, your dermatologist is, you know, a doctor, and is not freaked out by your lady bits. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 7. Bring a list, or even photos, of concerns. 7 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    I do regular skin self-exams, at the same time that I do breast self-exams. When I find weird moles or whatever, I make a note of it. However, if I only make a mental note, I will absolutely forget. Make a list of your concerns, including the locations of any moles that have changed, and what kind of changes you've seen. Note any new growths or lesions, or moles that have become irritating in some way: itching, bleeding, or sore. Another option is to use your cell phone camera and just take selfies of your moles. Then, when you're at the dermatologist's office, you can just scroll through your mole selfies and you'll remember what you wanted to show the doctor. Photos are also a helpful way to track moles that you can't see for yourself: I have a mole on my scalp, and I have my daughter take a photo of it, so that I check it out. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto; additional nonsense by Joslyn Gray for Babble)

  • 8. Ask tons of questions. 8 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    Sometimes doctors forget that we all don't speak their language. If your dermatologist starts yammering about dysplastic nevi, it's okay to interrupt and point out that you don't know what the hell he or she is talking about. (A dysplastic nevus is an atypical mole; nevi is the plural of nevus.) Get that smart phone back out and type yourself a note with all the stuff the doctor is saying. Otherwise, how will you know what to obsessively Google later?

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto; additional nonsense by Joslyn Gray for Babble)

  • 9. Learn how to do a self-exam. 9 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    "You're the person who has the best chance of noticing small changes," says Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, co-director of laser surgery at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, Washington, DC. You can check out the guidelines at the Skin Cancer Foundation, but it's also worth asking your dermatologist if she has any particular suggestions for you on how to do a self-exam. She may have specific things you should be looking for, based on your skin type, age, personal and family history, and lifestyle. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • 10. Before you leave, ask the dermatologist what type of daily sunblock she recommends. 10 of 10
    Mole Patrol: 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Skin Cancer Screening

    Because you will totally get free samples. And after all that, you deserve it.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto; additional nonsense by Joslyn Gray for Babble)

Read more from Joslyn on Babble and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow Joslyn on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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