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How to Spot Skin Cancer Through a Skin Self-Exam


The latest five-yearly report from The Singapore Cancer Registry puts Skin Cancer as the sixth most common cancer among men and women. In order of frequency these are: Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) and Melanoma.

Both BCC and SCC tend to appear as persistent growths in the skin that are neither itchy nor painful. Sometimes, this can appear as a small bump in the skin or a localised patch of flaky skin that resembles a rash. However, unlike rashes, Skin Cancers do not go away on their own without treatment and tend to increase in size over time. If left untreated for a long time, these patches of skin become exceptionally fragile and may start to bleed even when gently brushed against. As the skin cells in these regions are already damaged, they also frequently take a long time to heal from any injury or trauma.

Melanoma tends to present in the form of moles. The following five questions – the ABCDE of melanoma – can provide an indication that a mole may be cancerous:

  • Asymmetry: Is the mole distinctly asymmetrical (i.e. one half is not unlike the other)?
  • Border: Are the borders of the mole irregular, scalloped or poorly defined?
  • Colour: Do the colours of the mole vary from one end to the other?
  • Diameter: Is the mole larger than the size of a pencil eraser (about 6mm)?
  • Evolution: Does the mole change over time?

If detected early a melanoma can be removed surgically, with a very high cure rate. However, if it is allowed to advance into later stages and spread deeper into the skin, it is one of the most fatal forms of skin cancer: Melanoma is responsible for 75 percent of all deaths from skin cancer in the United States.

Individuals with light-coloured skin and hair, such as the Scottish and Irish, tend to be more prone to developing skin cancer than those with darker complexions. Individuals who are also constantly exposed to excessive amounts of sunlight are also at risk, as are those who have been exposed to high levels of carcinogenic chemicals (such as arsenic) or radiation (such as the survivors of hiroshima or Chernobyl).

If you have to go out into the sun, try to cover up as much of your skin as you can through the use of clothing. Apply sunscreen to the areas that you cannot cover, and try to avoid outdoor activity during the sunniest hours of the day (10am to 4pm).

If you are at high risk of developing skin cancer – perhaps because you are someone who has to frequently go out into the sun either for work or leisure, or perhaps because you are someone with undue occupational exposure to radioactive materials – you should pursue regular check-ups with your skin specialist. Skin cancer is highly treatable as long as it is detected early; wait too long, however, and the 99 percent recovery rate can dwindle down to as low as 15 percent. Don’t let that happen to you.