Sun exposure

When I was well into my 20s, I noticed a funny little brownish bump on my collarbone. it was probably less than a millimeter in diameter, and I thought it was probably just an ingrown hair that would vanish in a few days. But I still had nagging thoughts. Could it be skin cancer? Well, the days went by, and then weeks, and then two months (shame on me for waiting that long!), and then I started freaking out enough to finally go see the dermatologist. It turned out to be a small new mole—who knew you could keep getting them into your 30s?

If I would have taken the time to learn about the cancer warning signs, I could have spared myself a world of stress. While there’s no substitute for a skin exam—and you should always see your derm if you spot anything unusual—there are some telltale signs of skin cancer that can help you decipher that weird spot on your arm. 

Basal Cell Carcinoma

These guys usually crop up on a part of your body that’s gotten plenty of sun exposure, especially the neck and face. They may look like light-colored waxy bumps, or like brown or skin-toned lesions. 

Squamos Cell Carcinoma

These also occur on sun-soaked skin, often on the hands, ears and face. If you have darker skin, they could appear on areas that get less sun, like your legs. This type of cancer may appear as a hard, red bump or a flat, scaly lesion. 

Melanoma

Melanoma may appear anywhere, but usually occurs on the torso, head or neck in men, or the lower legs of women. Sun exposure doesn’t dictate where melanoma appears, and moles that used to be benign can turn into this type of cancer. Scary. 

Harmless Moles

Take a deep breath—most moles are completely harmless. The friendly ones are typically round and uniform in color, with well-defined borders. Look for symmetry, as most cancers have jagged or asymmetrical shapes.

When to See a Doctor

The key to catching skin cancer early is to look for changes in your skin. If you’ve had the same mole since high school and it’s never gotten bigger or changed shape, there’s probably nothing to worry about. If, like me, you notice a new mole, it’s a good idea to get it checked out. And if you notice any marks on your skin growing or changing colors, get to the dermatologist ASAP. 

Prevention

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, but it’s highly treatable if you catch it early. As with most conditions, however, the best protection is prevention. This means always using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher—even when it’s cloudy out. And don’t even think about using tanning beds. The CDC recommends staying in the shade between 10am and 4pm and wearing a wide-brimmed hat during the day to protect your face, neck and ears. While you’re at it, protect your eyes from cataracts with wrap-around sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays. It doesn’t take much to guard against skin cancer, so take these few steps now for a healthy complexion your whole life long.

image: Nicola since 1972