Detecting Skin Cancer

Melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, can begin as a new small, pigmented skin growth on normal skin as shown in this undated photo and word skin cancer AP / CBS

Dr. Jon LaPook is the CBS News medical correspondent.



Several years ago, I was telling a patient about the importance of doing routine screening for skin cancer - by far the most common type of cancer in the U.S., affecting over a million people a year. She volunteered that she was covered, that she was seeing a dermatologist routinely for Botox injections. "Does he do a complete head-to-toe exam?" I asked. Her pause and sheepish expression told me all I needed to know. She wasn't at all covered - because she was never uncovered.

Fortunately, the majority of skin cancers found each year are basal cell or squamous cell - the types that have a very high chance of being cured. The National Cancer Institute estimated that fewer than 1,000 people died from these "non-melanoma" cancers in 2008. Melanoma is another story, affecting over 62,000 Americans a year and causing over 8,400 deaths. The majority of melanomas occur in older patients but almost 1 percent are diagnosed under age 20 and almost 8 percent are found between ages 20 and 34. So you're never too young to start thinking about ways to prevent skin cancer and ways to keep track of what's happening with your skin.

Since I was in medical school in the mid-70s, the number of yearly cases in the U.S. has more than doubled. Early detection is likely one reason for the increase but nobody is exactly sure what has been causing the dramatic rise. What is clear, however, is that early detection is the name of the game when it comes to curing melanoma. The earlier a lesion is found, the better the chance of cure - which brings us to the main point of this blog. Everybody should be getting routine head-to-toe skin exams. This means looking from head to toe at every millimeter of your body, including where the sun doesn't shine. Skin cancers can occur in any location of the body, including the armpits, scalp, between the toes, in the groin or anogenital area - anywhere! Routine self-exam should be part of your screening regimen. If a partner is available who can examine hard to see areas such as the small of the back - all the better.

In addition, I feel that routine screening should include a well-trained health professional who is interested in performing a careful skin exam. This is where it can get tricky. We live in a time when sub-specialists abound - even among dermatologists. A patient may see a cosmetic dermatologist several times a year for Botox injections. The dermatologist may glance at areas of exposed skin but the patient should not feel that a full screening skin exam is being routinely performed. The patient I described at the top of this blog had magical thinking - somehow reasoning that she'd received skin cancer screening just because she'd seen a dermatologist, even though she hadn't taken her clothes off! Trust me: no doctor is good enough to detect skin cancer without examining the skin.

When the CBS DOC DOT COM team was brainstorming for segment ideas recently, producer Jessica Goldman came up with the idea of following her through a complete evaluation with a dermatologist. That brings us to today's episode with New York City dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco, who covers a wide range of skin issues, from cancer prevention to cosmetic dermatology.


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