To find cancers in their earliest, most treatable stages, it's vital to see a dermatologist at least once a year for a thorough skin check. Here's what to expect: You'll wear a gown or be draped with a sheet and you can usually keep your skivvies on. The doctor should have a nurse present and will look at your skin from head to toe, including the parts that don't get sun exposure. He may ask about the history of certain moles and will touch spots, since he can tell a lot by feel. Point out anything that concerns you, such as an area that has changed or a sore that hasn't healed. He may need to do a biopsy or treat a precancerous lesion.
Between doctor visits, you should do your own skin checks every month, says Ellen S. Marmur, MD, chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Take a general inventory of your constellations of freckles, moles, and any suspicious sores that haven't healed. Keep track of them on a body mole map that you can create on melanomamonday.org, then print it out and refer to it each time you do a check. When something changes, your radar should go off.
Give Yourself a Hand Your hands get a lot of sun exposure, so check them carefully. Skin cancers often feel like a patch of dry or scabby skin that doesn't heal. Flat spots and raised moles can both be skin cancer, says David Kriegel, MD, director and founder of the Manhattan Center for Dermatology. Look for moles with jagged borders, different colors, or those that appear to have changed recently.
Go to Your Head Your scalp is one of the most overlooked places: Cancers found there tend to be five times more aggressive than those on your face, Dr. Marmur says. Run your fingers front to back and side to side to feel for bumps and chronic scaly spots.
Keep Your Cleavage All Clear Your chest is at high risk for skin cancer since it's often exposed when you're wearing boatnecks or V-necks. As you apply your high-SPF facial moisturizer (every single day, right?), make it a part of your morning routine to slather some down to your neck and chest.
Now Ear This! The ears are a common location for basal-cell carcinomas, in part because people forget to apply sunscreen there. Particular trouble spots? The rim of your ears and the inner bowl next to the canal. Since you can't see the backs of your ears, use your fingers to feel for scaly patches.