The only way to get a definitive diagnosis of melanoma is by doing a biopsy of the affected skin. However, a doctor can make an educated guess about whether a mole or a skin lesion is melanoma by looking at it and evaluating the characteristic of the mole or lesion. Dermatologists and other doctors often use the ABCDEs of melanoma to help decide whether a mole or lesion should be biopsied. The ABCDEs stand for asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolution (or evolving). Melanoma is often suspected if the growth is asymmetrical, has poorly defined borders, is a certain color or combination of colors, is larger than 6mm, or has evolved (changed in shape, size or color).
Diagnostic tests (biopsies)
The definitive test for melanoma is called a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a portion of the suspicious growth so it can be examined in a laboratory by a pathologist. There are three basic types of biopsies that doctors use to help diagnose melanoma. They are:
- Incisional biopsy – An incisional biopsy involves taking the most irregular-appearing part of the growth.
- Excisional biopsy – During an excisional biopsy, doctors remove the entire suspicious mole or lesion and a small amount of normal looking skin surrounding it.
- Punch biopsy – A punch biopsy is done with a tool that has a round blade. The doctor presses the blade into the area of skin around the suspicious mole or lesion and removes a round area of skin.
When melanoma is suspected, most doctors like to remove the entire mole or lesion if possible, so they will typically opt for an excisional or punch biopsy. An incisional biopsy may be done if the mole is large or it’s difficult to remove the entire mole or lesion for other reasons.
Skin cancer screening
Dermatologists at Beaumont can screen for, diagnose and treat melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. Ask your doctor if a skin cancer screening may be right for you. There are some differing opinions about whether everyone should have regular skin cancer screenings. Some doctors believe it’s a good way to find melanoma and other skin cancer early when it’s most treatable. Others believe the benefits don’t outweigh the costs (physically, emotionally and financially).
Beaumont dermatologists will talk to you about your personal risk factors, and then you can decide together whether you should have regular skin exams by a dermatologist or other doctor.
There are two types of skin cancer screenings – skin self-examinations and skin exams done by a doctor. Both of them involve checking your skin from head to toe.
Skin exams performed by a doctor
If your doctor recommends regular skin exams, if you have signs or symptoms of skin cancer, or if a suspicious mole or growth on your skin has been identified, you may need to have a professional skin exam. This is a simple, non-invasive exam of the skin all over your body. The doctor will check the skin on your entire body, from your scalp to the bottom of your feet.
Skin self-examination for melanoma
The best way to prevent skin cancer from spreading is to catch it early. And the best way to catch it early is to know your skin so you will recognize changes. Self-examinations of the skin will help you understand what’s normal for you and will help you find early changes in your skin or moles. The earlier you find skin cancer, the easier it will be to treat it successfully.
Here’s how to perform a skin self-examination
First, get access to both a full-length mirror and a smaller hand-held mirror. You can use the hand-held mirror and full-length mirror together to see areas of your body that you can’t see with just one or the other. Make sure you do the examination in a room with plenty of bright light to help you see your skin more clearly.
- Examine your whole body in the mirror. You want to check your front, your back, and both sides with your arms raised.
- Look at your forearms closely (bend your elbows to get a closer look), then check the back and front of your upper arms, and your hands (including your palms and under your nails).
- Look at the front and back of your legs. Check your feet, including the tops, the soles, the area between your toes, and under your toenails.
- Check your back, buttocks and groin area using the hand-held mirror.
- Check the back of your neck and your scalp with the hand-held mirror.
During these checks, familiarize yourself with your skin. Look at any moles, freckles and marks you have. Make note of them if you think you won’t remember. When you’ve done a few skin checks, you will start to know your body well, so you’ll know whether anything has changed.
Also take note of how many moles or pigmented areas you have on your skin. A pigmented area is any area that has a different color than the rest of your skin. Then look for changes in the number of these areas and any changes in size, shape or color of them.
Melanoma care at Beaumont
If you have any signs and symptoms of melanoma, see a doctor right away to have a skin exam. Even if you don’t have moles or signs of skin cancer, you should talk to your doctor about your risks for developing melanoma and whether you should do monthly skin self-examinations and have professional skin exams. Beaumont dermatologists can diagnose and treat melanoma, including performing Mohs’ surgery.
Call 800-633-7377 today to schedule an appointment with a Beaumont dermatologist or to get a referral.