Sex & Health

Erdekian: How to protect your skin (and prevent skin cancer) this summer

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Melanoma is one of the most common cancers affecting young adults and the most common cancer in the U.S. It’s the leading cause of cancer death in women age 25–30.

UPDATED: July 15, 2017 at 4:01 p.m.

Lying on that familiar but weirdly textured wax paper on an exam table, I felt the blade of a scalpel slicing out a small area of skin on the edge of the bottom of my foot. The sensation was unusual, although painless from the shot of Novocaine injected just a few minutes prior. I felt the tactile details of the procedure, like the pieces of skin pulling together as the doctor sewed a needle and thread through the incision.

After returning home for the summer, I went to my dermatologist’s office for my annual checkup. I undressed and put on an awkward paper gown.  The doctor scanned my skin for any suspect-looking moles or areas of skin. She stopped to take a closer look at a small, dark mole on the bottom of my right foot with a magnifying glass. The doctor opted to biopsy it to test the cells using a circular blade to perform a punch biopsy to remove the mole after numbing the area with a shot.

A week later, I got a phone call. The biopsy showed it was “moderately atypical” or “moderately dysplastic nevus” — the mole is precancerous and at a greater risk than others to develop into melanoma. Dysplastic nevi come at different levels of risk: mild, moderate and severe.

Over the phone, the nurse said I would need a few millimeters of margins around the mole excised by a plastic surgeon, to make sure the area was clear of problematic cells. Most dermatologists agreed that moderately and severely dysplastic nevi should have their margins removed to be safe, while not all mildly dysplastic ones need to be, the doctor who performed my surgery, Dr. Eleanor Pitts, later told me.

Approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population has atypical moles, according to American Family Physician. Having one atypical mole doubles the chance of developing melanoma, and having 10 or more increases the risk times 14. Having a relative who’s had melanoma further increases risk.

Melanoma is one of the most common cancers affecting young adults and the most common cancer in the United States. It’s the leading cause of cancer death in women aged between 25 and 30.

The best form of preventative care is to see a dermatologist for an annual skin check.

Dr. Lynne Goldberg, dermatologist and professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine, said to find a dermatologist a good start is to make an appointment with a doctor who a family member has seen. Another option is to call your local hospital’s dermatology department.

The young people in greatest need of evaluation include those with multiple moles, fair skin, especially when they have a history of many childhood sunburns, and a family history of skin cancer. Most health insurance plans cover dermatology visits if they’re deemed medically necessary, thankfully.

Another line of defense is to scan your body once a month for anything that looks odd, new or like it could be growing or changing. Specific physical attributes to watch out for include can be remembered by the acronym ABCD — asymmetry, irregular border, variation in color and large diameter — Goldberg said. Any mole that stands out as the “ugly duckling” should be watched closely or biopsied, she added.

Although skin cancer is less common in darker skin tones, no one is totally safe from the risk. People of color and people with darker skin, in general, are more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma, which commonly appears on palms of hands and bottoms of the feet, areas to keep an eye on.

Use a checklist of body parts or scan in an orderly fashion from bottom up, front to back. Make sure you have good lighting and a mirror to check your back. If you can enlist a friend or family member to help check hard to see areas like your scalp that’s even better. To thoroughly keep track take pictures of your moles so you know for sure if one has developed in some way.

Rehashing the key ways to prevent skin cancer, Goldberg recommended avoiding midday sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., applying and reapplying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing in the sun like a wide brim hat. And of course, avoiding tanning beds, they’ve been a proven cause of thousands of cases of skin cancer.

Despite being housebound for a week and limited in physical activities for a while because I had three stitches in the bottom of my foot, only to ultimately find out that my margins tested negative, I’m finding relief in the fact that at least for now — knock on wood — I’m all caught up on at least one area of health.

Additional resources:

American Cancer Society’s skin cancer gallery

Browse these photos of actual skin cancers so that you know what you are looking for when you scan yourself. Seeing a variety is helpful because skin cancer can visually manifest a bit differently on every individual.

Types of skin cancer

Including actinic keratoses, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Glossary of skin cancer terms

From A-Z, here are the detailed medical terms to know in the field of skin cancer health.

Skin cancer prevention

Read up on the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for staying safe in the sun and avoiding other risks such as tanning beds.

Differences between normal moles, atypical moles and melanoma

This guide from American Family Physician breaks down the differences with photos, a spreadsheet and more.

Alex Erdekian is a senior magazine journalism major and psychology minor. When she’s not writing or editing, you can find her learning about different coffees while working at Karma Coffee Roasters or intensely searching WebMD for ironically unhealthy amounts of time. Reach her at or on Twitter at @alexxe08.


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