Health

Body check: 10 minutes could save your life from skin cancer

May 5, 2014 at 8:15 AM ET

Video: Melanoma is the second most common cancer in children and teenagers. A new PSA called “Dear 16-Year-Old Me” is helping spread the word about the potentially deadly disease. A dermatologist joins TODAY to discuss the importance of early detection.

Here’s an idea for your next date night or get-together with a close friend, and it could save your life.

TODAY is dedicating "Melanoma Monday" — the first Monday in May — to raising awareness of skin cancer. Melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, but it is the deadliest.

Dr. Debra Wattenberg, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, stopped by the TODAY plaza Monday to demonstrate how to conduct a 10-minute full body check that can help detect a suspicious spot on your skin.

“Early detection saves lives,” she said. “If you detect it before it spreads, you have a 98 percent chance of cure.”

Matt Lauer noted that some people think skin cancer only strikes people who love to bake in the sun. But, it’s not true.

“Skin cancer actually occurs in one and five Americans, which is a super-high number,” Wattenberg said. “One person dies of malignant melanoma every hour. It can affect all races, all colors, all skin types.”

As TODAY distributed hand mirrors to fans gathered on the plaza, Wattenberg walked them through how to do a body check.

Before you start examining your skin for suspicious moles from top to bottom, strip down to your birthday suit and stand in front a mirror under strong light. Start with the scalp, parting the hair to check the skin and work your way down, using the hand mirror for places you can’t see up close.

“You’re looking for moles that are asymmetrical, we’re looking for moles that have irregular border, colors that are irregular, diameter bigger than the size of a pencil eraser, anything that’s changing or evolving. Moles that don’t go away, growths that hurt or scab or crust or bleed.”

Go here to download a mole chart from the American Academy of Dermatology.

It is not just the skin that is most often exposed to the sun that needs to be checked, but every place in between. That means under your arms and between your toes, Wattenberg said.

“You need to look everywhere,” she said.

There are some places that are harder to examine than others, and another person can help.

“It’s a great date-night activity,” Wattenberg said. “Your partner can help you see areas you can’t see.”

You can also photograph something suspicious as a reference. “If you see a change, you need to see your doctor,” she said.

Detailed instructions for giving yourself a thorough body check:

  • Strip down to your birthday suit.
  • Make sure you have good light, a hand mirror and a full length mirror.
  • Start with your scalp... Separate your hair and look closely.
  • Then examine face, under nose, ears and behind ears.
  • Next look at arms, under arms and backs of arms.
  • Check your chest, then abdomen, pelvis, groin and legs.
  • Sit down and check feet as wells as between toes.
  • Then use your hand mirror with your back to the full mirror to check your back, buttock and back of legs.
  • Every surface of the skin should be checked, even those places where the sun doesn't shine.

What to look for: The ABCDEs of skin cancer:

A ASYMMETRY - One half unlike the other half.

B BORDER- Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.

C COLOR - Varied from one area to another.

D DIAMETER - While melanomas are usually greater than 6 mm, they can be smaller.

E EVOLVING - A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest.

As melanoma is the second most common cancer in children and teenagers, a public service announcement aimed at teens, called “Dear 16-year-old Me,” has gone viral.

The videos features adults imagining they are talking to their younger selves, and urging people to spend 10 minutes a month checking their skin to help stop melanoma from spreading to places in the body like the liver, lungs and brain.

“One bad sunburn before you turn 18 doubles your chances of developing melanoma,” they say in the video.

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

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