At the beginning of the year, I adopted the ritual of scheduling all my annual preventative medical and dental appointments at once. It takes about an hour and then it’s done. And, most importantly, I never find myself mid-way through the year wondering if I did or didn’t schedule that appointment.
And this year, with age, comes new appointments to schedule, including an annual mammogram and most recently, an annual skin check. My first thought was uh-oh. The times I failed to be diligent about sunscreen and wearing protective clothing when in the sun are about to haunt me.
My mind began to wonder—what will she look for, will it take very long, should I ask her about my newfound wrinkle?
To help better understand why it’s important (and bring some anxiety relief), I interviewed Seattle-based dermatologist Dr. Erin Moore, MD for her insight on what your doctor might be looking for and other questions you should ask while you are there.
Me: Am I late to the game with my annual skin check?
Dr. Moore: When you have your first skin check depends on a few factors:
- Do you have a history of tanning bed exposure? (me thinking: does my deck count?) If yes then I recommend an annual screening every year starting in your 20s. Tanning bed exposure significantly increases the risk of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer.
- Do you have a history of multiple or serious sun burns? (me thinking: define history…) If so, I recommend a baseline exam in your 20s or 30s.
- Are you light skinned with blonde or red hair? I recommend a baseline exam in your 20s to 30s.
- Do you have over 25 moles? I recommended a baseline exam in your 20s to 30s.
- Do you have a first degree relative who has had melanoma or a sibling with any type of skin cancer? If yes, I recommend a skin check in your 20s to 30s.
Me: So is this exam to look exclusively for cancer?
Dr. Moore: Skin exams are important for identifying cancerous moles, but also for spotting pre-cancerous or early skin cancer that can be treated with less invasive measures, identifying areas where you have higher sun damage and higher risk of skin cancer, and providing education on the proper use of sun protection and sun screen for both cancer and photoaging (think wrinkles and brown spots) prevention.
Me: What exactly do you look for in a skin exam?
Dr. Moore: I’m looking for suspicious moles or growths that may be cancerous or precancerous. Often dermatologists will use special lights or handheld microscopes to carefully inspect the skin. We look everywhere- the scalp, between your toes and even in the underwear area.
Me: That sounds very thorough. How long does an exam take?
Dr. Moore: The length of the appointment depends on the degree of sun damage, number or moles, other growths and a history of skin cancer you have in your family. Generally, the skin check takes between 15 and 30 minutes for the entire visit.
Me: Do we need to do anything to prepare?
Dr. Moore: I suggest you make a list of new, changing or skin growths you have questions about and note any information about your family history of skin cancer
Me: What happens if you find something suspicious? (Gulp – I’m kind of a needle phobe)
Dr. Moore: A suspicious lesion can be biopsied, which is a small procedure where the mole or growth is removed and sent for pathology. Sometimes we will take measurements or a photo and check it later (2-3 months) for change. If a spot looks precancerous (not a mole) it can be treated with liquid nitrogen like destroying a wart
Me: What other questions should we ask?
Dr. Moore: Other common questions I receive include:
- How often should I come for skin checks?
- How can I prevent skin cancer and sun related aging?
- Am I using my sunscreen correctly?
Having more information helps ease my anxiety about this new appointment and reminds me that it’s one I shouldn’t miss. A huge thanks to Dr. Moore for her insight.
How do you handle scheduling your regular medical and dental appointments? Do you schedule in advance or wait for the reminder cards? Share your favorite way in the comments below.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions. It should not replace evaluation from a medical professional.