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How To Prep For A Full Body Skin Cancer Exam

Posted on May 1, 2023 by Elizabeth Swanson
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Getting an annual skin cancer exam is so important—especially if you have atypical moles, a personal or family history of skin cancer, or a significant history of sun exposure. Working as a lifeguard, experiencing blistering sunburns, playing summer sports or using tanning beds (even if it was years ago during childhood) are all factors that increase your risk of skin cancer.  

At a skin cancer screening, your dermatologist will check your skin from head to toe, since skin cancer can develop anywhere you have skin. “I generally start at the scalp and work my way down to the hands and feet,” says Anna Axelson, M.D., a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health. “A full body exam also includes the buttocks and groin, but I leave that up to the patient if they are uncomfortable. It’s not required, but it would be included in a complete exam.” 

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Here, Dr. Axelson shares seven things to keep in mind before your appointment.   

1. Don’t wear makeup. “A lot of skin cancers I find on the face are pretty subtle (they are often basal or squamous cell carcinoma) and makeup can hide them,” says Dr. Axelson. She recommends coming in with nothing on your face but sunscreen

2. Don’t wear nail polish. Skin cancer can develop under your nails—and nail polish will likely mask any signs of skin cancer. “If someone is wearing nail polish or artificial nails, I’ll ask them if they’ve noticed any discoloration under their nail beds,” says Dr. Axelson. “But it’s always better for us to be able to see it ourselves.”  

3. Bring a brush to fix your hair afterward. Your dermatologist will check your scalp, so if you’re wearing hairspray or have a fresh blowout, know that it might get messed up. “Heavy hairspray makes it difficult to thoroughly check your scalp,” says Dr. Axelson. “I’ve also seen people use scalp powder for thinning hair and the powder makes it harder to examine the scalp.”     

4. Wearing self-tanner? That’s fine. “I much prefer self-tanner that than someone coming in with a sunburn,” says Dr. Axelson. “But I do give props to people who come in with a sunburn and don’t cancel the appointment. We won’t lecture you, we’re just here to help.”  

5. Be your own advocate. You don’t have to have your groin or buttocks checked if you’re uncomfortable—just speak up. “I tell my patients, ‘you’re the boss, I just want to meet your expectations,’” says Dr. Axelson. “If something makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to do it. I feel comfortable with either gender—and I think most dermatologists do—but if it makes you more at ease, you can definitely choose a doctor of your same gender."

6. On that note, you don’t need to cancel if you’re menstruating. “I see people on their menstrual cycles. Sometimes people don’t want that area checked because they're menstruating and that's fine. Just be sure to monitor that area for suspicious-looking moles,” says Dr. Axelson. “Your gynecologist can monitor it, too. But know that if you’re coming upon your skin exam and you get your period, you don’t need to cancel for that reason.”    

7. Make a list of suspicious spots you want to ask the dermatologist about. “It’s easy to forget stuff—like mentioning a spot on your leg that appeared three months ago that’s now itchy,” says Dr. Axelson. “I think it’s helpful to make notes. You can even take photos of any moles that are new or changed to show your doctor. It’s easier to be prepared than having to try to remember everything on the spot." 


Reviewed by Dr. Anna Axelson, a board-certified dermatologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Detroit and Grosse Pointe Farms. 

 
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