Your first full-body exam at the dermatologist is important, but it can also be nerve-racking. A positive experience will encourage you to continue getting your annual skin checks and keep skin cancer at bay. This blog post will explain what you can expect and how you can prepare so you feel more comfortable.
“It wasn't until I retired and relocated to Queensland that I discovered that yearly skin checks were important. Queensland has the highest rate of skin cancer in Australia. I was shocked to be diagnosed with a squamous cell cancer on my forearm and shortly after, a Basal Cell on my throat.” — Anne, Solbari Customer
Why do I need a full body exam?
Between 2 and 3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanomas occur globally each year, with one in every three cancers diagnosed being a skin cancer.
Regular annual full-body skin exams are the key to early detection and prevention. If caught early, skin cancer can almost always be treated. In fact, when melanoma is caught in its earliest stages, the five-year survival rate is 99%. If not caught early, skin cancer can start spreading to the organs, with survival rate plummeting to just 20%.
When performed by an experienced dermatologist, comprehensive skin exams can be very effective in spotting the early changes associated with skin cancer and melanoma.
What is a full-body skin exam?
The name is rather self-explanatory: careful visual examination of the skin all over your body by a dermatologist specially trained in detecting skin cancer.
If this is your first time getting a full-body exam, it’s normal to be self-conscious about having such a comprehensive and revealing examination of your skin.
However, considering skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and are highly treatable when caught early, having regular full-body skin evaluations is a quick yet important part of your healthcare routine that can potentially be lifesaving.
What are they looking for?
Your dermatologist will inspect your skin for any moles, marks, or irregularities and make a note of them. They typically look at the “ABCDE” of each mole:
- Asymmetry: Sides of the shape are uneven
- Border irregularity: Ragged or blurred edges
- Color: Different shades of tan, brown, or black
- Diameter: Larger than 6mm / 0.25″
- Evolving: Changes over time
What is the process?
The examination shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, and it is recommended that you remove any bandages, jewellery, nail polish and make up beforehand. For the exam, you will be asked to remove your clothing, keeping your underwear on, and provided with a hospital gown.
Your dermatologist may use a bright light or hand-held magnification tool called a dermatoscope to look at skin lesions in more detail. Your evaluation begins at the top of your head and ends at the bottoms of your feet.
The dermatologist will part your hair to examine your scalp, from the crown to the nape. They’ll pay close attention to your ears and your neck before moving down to your torso, legs, and feet.
When examining your hands, arms and face, you will likely be sitting down. To examine your back and the back of your legs, you will be asked to lie face down. You will then be asked to turn onto your back so that your chest, abdomen and the front of your legs can be examined.
Your dermatologist will likely ask if you have moles of particular concern located in areas covered by your underwear. If so, you can give your dermatologist consent to inspect them, provided you are comfortable with that.
In the event the exam turns up an unusual spot on your skin, a small sample of the skin in that area may be taken for further evaluation under a microscope. Your skin will be numbed prior to removal using a local anaesthetic or topical cream so you won’t feel any discomfort.
If this is your first exam in years, your dermatologist may opt for biopsies of any growths on your body just to be sure that they are benign. If you have been getting examined regularly, then any growths on your body will be compared to notes made during your last examination.
How often should I get a skin examination?
You should have a full-body skin evaluation once a year. If you have a history of skin cancer, you should have one twice a year.
There are two main reasons for this: first, skin changes can occur rapidly, and having an annual exam ensures skin cancers are caught early so treatment can be as effective as possible. Secondly, having annual exams creates a record of your skin’s health and appearance from one year to the next.
This makes it a lot easier to spot even the most subtle of changes so you can feel confident you’ll receive the treatment you need, if or when you need it.
Can I do it myself?
You should always do your best to monitor your skin. After all, it is the only organ on the outside of our body regularly exposed to the sun. Keep a personal record of any spots, moles or marks that:
- Have changed in size, shape or color over time
- Bleed or do not heal after weeks
- Are asymmetrical and/or have irregular borders
- Are larger than 6mm / 0.25″
These are certainly worth bringing to the attention of your dermatologist, if you haven’t already done so, and can prevent the potential development of skin cancers and melanoma.