Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States – that is why we have the whole month of May dedicated to raising awareness about this serious and sometimes deadly disease. The good news is that nearly all cases of skin cancer can be effectively treated, if found and diagnosed early. Self-check your skin at least once a month, to familiarize yourself with any new or changing growths and moles. Skin cancer typically presents as unusual lumps, sores, or moles that appear in sun-exposed areas. Take note of a bump or mole that is new, changes over time, bleeds or oozes easily, or does not heal after a period of two weeks. If you suspect you have a skin cancer growth, schedule an appointment to see a dermatologist as soon as possible. And as a general precaution, check in with your dermatologist every six months for a head-to-toe exam.
Skin cancer does not always develop in visible areas, such as your arms, legs, or face. The two most common types of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma – as well as melanoma, can also mature in places where the sun don’t shine, such as on the palms and soles of feet and in the groin area.
The scalp is another common birthplace for skin cancer. We generally disregard the scalp as a danger zone, because we think hair covers and protects the sensitive skin. But this is a false assumption – melanoma can develop on any part of the body that contains melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), including the scalp. In fact, skin cancer on the scalp can be more dangerous and even more deadly, because there is a longer detection period. And in the case of melanoma, lack of early treatment gives the cancer cells more time to spread to other parts of your body.
When it comes to examining your scalp, here is what you should be looking out for:
- Basal cell carcinoma: Basal cell carcinoma typically appears as a pink spot that is either flat or raised. These cancerous spots may bleed easily, even with minor injury.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinoma first occurs as a rough or scaly pink to red patch of skin on the scalp and then progresses into a firm, raised lump. These bumps may be tender to the touch.
- Melanoma: Unlike basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma characteristically begins as a dark spot or mole with irregular borders and colors. Just like identifying melanoma on other parts of the body, the ABCDE method of detection works for spotting unusual scalp growths.
- A – Asymmetrical in shape
- B – Borders that are uneven or irregular
- C – Colors that vary from blues, reds, or white
- D – Diameters that are larger than a pencil eraser
- E – Evolves over time
- Some cancerous spots may have visible blood vessels, be shiny, or be rough and crusty.
Since unusual scalp lesions can be hard to spot, enlist the help of a significant other, friend, or hairdresser to examine your noggin. When you spend time outdoors, wear a hat as often as possible, and apply sunscreen to as much of your head as you can. Try using spray sunscreen, which is less messy to work into your scalp (and click here to learn about common sunscreen ingredients). Make routine visits to see your dermatologist for a head-to-toe exam. Above all, treat every month like it is skin cancer awareness month.