Skin Cancer Screening

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2017.

Cancer screening means checking for cancer before you have any symptoms. Nearly 20% of US adults have been screened at least once for skin cancer.1 Skin cancer is easier to treat when it is caught early. So shouldn’t everyone be screened?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask. The American Academy of Dermatology believes that screening is the best tool to detect skin cancer early.2 The American Cancer Society states that regular skin exams are important for people at high risk of skin cancer.3

The US Preventive Services Task Force studied this question, too. They found that there have not been enough studies to recommend for or against skin cancer screening.4 Importantly, their conclusion was not a recommendation against screening. It also does not apply to everyone. Their study focused on a general population of adults. These are individuals without known suspicious lesions or skin cancer. Therefore, their conclusion does not apply if you spot a suspicious lesion. It also may not apply if are at high risk of skin cancer.

Your doctor is the best person to make a recommendation about skin cancer screening. Ask your doctor how often to have your skin examined. You can also examine your own skin regularly for any unusual spots.

How is skin cancer screening done?

Your health care provider will visually inspect your skin.5 Your provider will check for moles or marks that look different from the other lesions on your skin. Your provider will check to see whether moles have typical features of melanoma.

In a private setting, your health care provider might do a full-body screen. If privacy is limited, your face, neck, arms, and hands will be inspected.6

What are the possible benefits of skin cancer screening?

Screening helps doctors and patients find melanomas earlier. Researchers asked people with melanoma whether they had been screened in the 3 years before their diagnosis.7 People who were screened were less likely to have thick (more advanced) melanomas than people who were not screened.

In theory, finding melanomas earlier should improve survival. Other possible benefits are better quality of life and less cost to treat melanoma.1 However, studies have not proven this so far.

What are the possible harms of skin cancer screening?

Screening could lead to unnecessary procedures. For example, non-cancerous lesions might be biopsied or removed. Both procedures cause scarring. Scarring is usually minimal. However, a small percentage of people end up with poor cosmetic results.4 There is a chance of diagnosing and treating cancers that would not have caused harm or death within the person’s expected lifetime.

Who should be screened?

If you notice an unusual or suspicious lesion on your skin, make an appointment to see your doctor.

The American Cancer Society notes that screening is especially important if you are at high risk for skin cancer. Top risk factors include:3

  • Weakened immune system because of certain diseases or medical treatments.
  • Previous skin cancer.
  • Strong family history of skin cancer.

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