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How Can You Test for Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is currently the most common cancer in America and incident rates of this cancer continue to climb each year. At Burt and Will Plastic Surgery and Dermatology in Burr Ridge, IL, we believe that patients deserve comprehensive and compassionate care, which is why we will answer all the questions you may have about your skin concerns.

How Can You Test for Skin Cancer?

Testing for cancer generally starts with a visual assessment of an atypical mole or other skin lesions. Generally, people only schedule tests for cancer if they identify spots or splotches on their skin that are unusual. Whether your growth is benign or cancerous, the testing procedure is always the same.

Skin Cancer Screening

Regular skin screenings are the most basic way to test for cancer. Dermatologists are trained in how to identify cancerous lesions on the face, body, scalp, and even fingernails. If you have risk factors for developing cancer, then scheduling regular screenings every one to three years may be a good idea.

You may need additional screenings more often if you’ve previously been diagnosed with any cancers of the skin. A screening test will usually take 20 to 30 minutes for the full body.


Dermoscopy is a polarized light tool that is used to mostly examine suspicious moles or pigmented lesions on the skin. Dermoscopy is highly effective and can identify the vast majority of potentially cancerous lesions.

Your dermatologist will likely use dermoscopy to examine moles with atypical features during a cancer screening. Sometimes, dermatologists will also take pictures of these potentially cancerous moles, along with measurements and other clinical information, such as when you first noticed the lesion.

Skin Biopsy

The final step of testing for cancers of the skin is performing a skin biopsy. There are a few techniques that are used for a skin biopsy, but the basic process is to remove skin that is affected with atypical features. The biopsy sample will be sent to a lab to test for cancerous cells.

Much of the time, atypical moles that are removed with skin biopsy end up being benign, but if your pigmented lesions are cancerous, your dermatologist will get in touch to schedule a treatment for your cancer. Early treatment of this form of cancer can be life-saving.

Detecting Skin Cancer: Learn Your ABCDEs

So, what does a suspicious mole or pigmented lesion look like? Although a dermatologist will need to decide whether your pigmented lesion is indeed atypical, patients can also learn the basic screening criteria that are used for assessing moles that have atypical features. This criterion is referred to as ABCDEs.


Atypical moles are typically asymmetric. This means that the mole does not have a symmetrical shape. Although no mole is perfectly circular, the left and right sides should generally mirror each other. If one side of the mole is extremely abnormal compared to the other, dermatologists will consider this an atypical feature and may recommend a cancer screening.

Border Irregularities

Border irregularities refer to the pigment transition between your skin tone and the pigmented lesion. In general, the border of a normal mole will be clearly defined. However, if there are border irregularities, such as scalloped borders or notched borders, a dermatologist may consider these atypical features and order a biopsy to assess the mole for cancerous cells.

Color Variation

You probably have dozens of freckles and moles on your body, and most of them will be the same color. It’s not unusual to have different shades of brown for different moles on different areas of your body. However, if the same mole has distinct color variations within the border, this may be a sign that the mole is atypical or cancerous. Color variation can include all shades of brown, black, and red.


Pigmented lesions that are large are typically considered atypical. Most benign moles are less than 6mm in diameter, so if you have a very large pigmented lesion, it’s a good idea to discuss your skin health with a dermatologist. That said, some forms of melanoma can be smaller than 6mm, so if you have any concerns about atypical features on a mole, it’s best to schedule a consultation.


Finally, melanoma and other forms of cancer may evolve. In general, the moles on your skin should not change color, shape, or texture. While you can develop a new freckle or a new mole at any time, moles that show up and continue to get larger or change color are concerning for dermatologists. It’s best to schedule a skin check if you have an evolving pigmented lesion.

Defining Features of Common Cancers

It’s important to be aware of the different defining features of common cancers so that you can do a self-assessment if you suspect you have an atypical lesion on your skin.

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic Keratosis is a precancerous lesion that often forms on the scalp, face, and arms. These pre-cancerous lesions are caused by unprotected sun exposure over several years and have a high potential to turn into cancer. The main defining feature of Actinic Keratosis is a rough, red appearance that evolves.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

As the most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinomas generally present as a red, smooth bump that is usually found on the face. These pigmented lesions can bleed and invade the skin. It’s uncommon for basal cell carcinomas to spread to other parts of the body.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is another form of cancer that is caused by years of unprotected sun damage. Squamous cell carcinomas present as rough and scaly red spots on the skin that will spread to other areas of the body and destroy skin tissues.


When people think of cancers of the skin, they typically think about melanoma. The most common defining feature of melanoma is an atypical mole that suddenly changes in appearance. Most of the ABCDEs are used to identify melanoma. Melanoma is the most aggressive form of cancer for the skin.

What About Atypical Moles?

When a dermatologist is assessing your skin for signs of cancer, they may come across moles that have slightly irregular shapes or colors compared to other moles on the body. Atypical moles are very common and don’t always present the risk of cancer in the future.

However, to be safe, many dermatologists will perform a biopsy on atypical moles. This is because dermatologists like to be cautious when screening for potential cancer. If you believe you have an atypical mole or other odd pigmentation on your skin, it’s best to schedule a consultation right away.

Are You a Candidate for a Screening?

There is a misconception that the only people who can develop cancers of the skin are those who have fair complexions. However, melanoma and other cancers of the skin can affect people of all ethnicities, skin tones, and skin types. For this reason, most people are considered good candidates for cancer screenings, dermoscopy, and skin biopsies.

That said, there are several risk factors associated with developing cancer of the skin. If any of these risk factors apply to you, then you should prioritize scheduling a skin screening as soon as possible, particularly if you feel like you have an atypical pigmented lesion.

Common Risk Factors

The most common risk factors associated with developing any type of cancer of the skin include a family history of cancer, having blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, and skin that burns easily. If you have several freckles or your skin is painful in the sun, this is also indicative of a skin type that is at high risk of developing cancer in the future.

Furthermore, a history of unprotected sun exposure can put you in a high-risk category. If you spent much of your youth in the sun without sunscreen or in tanning beds, you are more likely to develop cancer of the skin. Finally, people who have 40 or more moles on the body may be more likely to develop skin cancer in the future.

Be Proactive About Your Skin Health

Certain types of skin cancer are extremely aggressive and can spread to other areas of the body. For this reason, it’s best to be proactive about your skin health and speak with a dermatologist if you feel like you have a pigmented lesion or an atypical mole. Contact Burt and Will Plastic Surgery and Dermatology in Burr Ridge, IL to schedule your consultation today.

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