Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the US. It’s also one of the most treatable forms of cancer when caught early. Checking your skin for changes and anomalies is a vital part of the screening process. Working with your primary care provider and dermatologist, you can catch skin cancer while it’s treatable and before it spreads to other areas of your body. Routine skin checks are an essential part of early screening and skin health. But do I need to see a dermatologist every year? Can my primary care provider help me prevent and detect skin cancer?
What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells. It’s often related to sun damage but can also occur in areas of the body that don’t regularly see sun exposure. The three most common types of skin cancer are:
- Basal cell carcinoma: a non-melanoma cancer that occurs in the skin’s basal cells and is generally related to sun exposure. BCC generally looks like a round growth or bump similar to your skin color. It’s most common on the head, neck and arms but also appears on other areas of your body.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: a non-melanoma cancer that starts in the skin’s growth cells. It’s usually not life-threatening but can cause severe health risks if not detected early. It often manifests as a red bump or scaly patch or looks like a sore on the skin.
- Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer because of its potential to spread to other areas of the body. It can appear anywhere on your body, including areas not exposed to the sun. Risk factors for melanoma include sun exposure, having many moles on your body, fair skin/freckles and family history.
Non-melanoma skin cancers (including basal and squamous cell carcinomas) are more common, while melanoma is more deadly. Melanoma kills nearly 8,000 Americans each year, according to the American Cancer Society. However, mortality rates have dropped in the last decade because of advances in treatment. Early detection is critical, and routine screenings play a vital role.
How Often Should I Get Screened for Skin Cancer?
We recommend a yearly skin check with a dermatologist for most adults. Your dermatologist may recommend more frequent checks if you are at high risk or have a family history. A full-body skin exam involves a head-to-toe screening, including your scalp and between your toes. When we look for signs of skin cancer, we look for moles or lesions with the following characteristics:
- Irregular edges
- Asymmetrical shape
- Different colors
- Larger than 6 millimeters in diameter.
- Changing over time
Where Should I Go for a Skin Check?
Your dermatologist is the best specialist to see for a full-body skin check. Your primary care provider is also an essential resource for skin cancer prevention and early detection and often catches unusual moles or lesions when doing a routine checkup. Your PCP is also an excellent first resource for patients who don’t have an established dermatologist. When you need a biopsy or removal of a potentially cancerous growth, we’ll refer you to a dermatologist.
How Can My Primary Care Doctor Promote Healthy Skin?
We recommend seeing a dermatologist for a yearly full-body skin check. However, your primary care provider plays an essential role in the prevention and early detection of skin cancer. We help you create good habits and avoid sun damage with the following tips:
- Wear a high SPF sunscreen.
- Avoid outdoor activities in the middle of the day when possible.
- Wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
At Comprehensive Primary Care, we understand that not every patient has immediate access to specialists. While we recommend yearly skin checks with a dermatologist, we know we are often the first line of defense for skin cancer. Our providers can identify potentially malignant growths when you get routine care. Staying alert and aware of skin cancer warning signs is part of our practice. If we find something of concern, we’ll help you find a dermatologist for screening and treatment. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and as your primary care provider, helping you keep it healthy is part of our job.