Check your mate: Partner up to catch melanoma early

February 14, 2017 Allison Milionis

It’s Valentine’s Day. Cue the slow jams, light a few candles, then take your sweetheart in your arms and tell her it’s time for a routine skin cancer check.

Wait. What?

It may not sound romantic, but detecting skin cancer in its earliest stages is one of the most loving things you can do for your partner.

Experts say that partner skin checks can be very effective in catching melanoma early, especially with some training. “It can be overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for, and without guidelines,” says Kristin Stevens, M.D., Ph.D., medical director at Providence Medical Group Dermatology. “But early detection really does save lives.”

She suggests a good place to start is becoming familiar with your own skin or “constellation” (the location of moles) and your partner’s, from head to toe. Throughout the year, conduct a monthly exam using a bright light, a hand mirror and a full-length mirror. Look for new moles or growths, and existing growths that begin to change.

“Melanoma is easily cured if caught early,” says Dr. Stevens. “In its earliest stages, meaning it has remained on the top layer of skin, the survival rate is 99 percent with surgery.

But if it isn’t found, melanoma can spread in the skin, lymph nodes and other organs, which lowers the survival rate.”

The Skin Cancer Foundation has a helpful guide on how to do skin exams.

Common moles

Common moles are, well, common. Most adults have up to 40 on their body. Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark is a good example. Madonna once sported one as well. Common moles are dark or flesh-colored, round or oval, have a smooth surface with a distinct edge, and are often dome-shaped. Although it’s rare for common moles to develop into melanoma, it’s still important to keep an eye on them, especially if you or your partner have more than 50 common moles over your body. People with more moles are at greater risk of developing melanoma.

Atypical moles

Moles that look different from common moles may be more likely to progress to malignant melanoma. An atypical mole, also called dysplastic nevus, can be identified using the ABCDE guidelines detailed below. These are the moles that should signal a red flag.

Dr. Stevens recommends everyone become familiar with the ABCDE guidelines to help identify atypical moles and early melanoma:

Asymmetry – The shape of one half of a mole or mark doesn’t match the other half.
Border – The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred. The pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
Color – Shades of black brown and tan may be present and uneven. There may be hints of white, gray, red, pink or blue, as well.
Diameter –  The size changes, usually an increase.
Evolving – The mole changes over a few weeks or months.

If you see this type of mole on your skin or on your partner, contact your provider.

The National Cancer Institute has a page devoted to facts about moles and melanoma on their website. The photos and graphs are especially helpful.

With training comes confidence and comfort

If you find the idea of skin checks intimidating, arm yourself with good general information before you do a self check or partner check. Ask your provider for tips if you feel overwhelmed.

We love hearing from our readers. If you have a topic you’d like to learn about, send us a note in the comment section below.

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