Healthy or not? Normal spots tend to have smooth borders like this one.
When a bumpy mole appeared on Monica Zisa’s left breast last year, she wasn’t worried. “For three months, I just ignored it—I’m Colombian and didn’t think I had the skin cancer risk that fairer people do,” says Zisa, a 32-year-old caterer from New York City. Plus, the spot was on a body part that had almost never seen the sun. “But it started changing and looked really weird—kind of red and whitish—so I finally went to a dermatologist,” she says. “I got the news that it was melanoma on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday I was at the hospital, having a three-inch section of skin removed from my breast.” Zisa found her melanoma at an early stage, when the survival rate is 99 percent. But often, skin cancer in unlikely places like the breast, buttocks, scalp and genitals is overlooked and diagnosed late, when the disease is more advanced and survival rates plummet, says Rhoda Alani, M.D., director of the Melanoma and Pigment Lesion Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Alarmingly, Dr. Alani and other doctors Glamour spoke to told us they are finding more and more cancers on surprising parts of the body. “I’m seeing more of what we call hidden’ skin cancers,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D., chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “In the past couple of months, I’ve removed melanomas under toenails, I’ve taken a squamous cell cancer off the bottom of a patient’s foot, and I’ve biopsied basal cell carcinomas inside the fold of an upper ear. I’ve also seen cancers on women’s genitals and even inside the mouth.”
What’s causing skin cancers to develop where the sun doesn’t shine? It’s not fully understood yet, but researchers believe UV rays may still be partly to blame, since too much sun suppresses your overall immune system. “This means your body will have a tougher time repairing DNA damage or zapping precancerous cells in any spot, even ones that are covered up,” says Dr. Marmur. Adding to the damage, we’re being exposed to more UV rays, thanks to the thinning of the ozone layer, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.
The sun isn’t the only thing beating up your skin. “Air pollutants like car exhaust cause the formation of free radicals,” says Dr. Marmur. “These highly reactive molecules bounce around like little Tasmanian devils, injuring skin cells and causing DNA mutations that can lead to skin cancer.” The bottom line: No matter what the cause, the earlier any type of skin cancer is found, the more curable it is (and the smaller the scar). The two things every woman must do to make sure cancerous changes are found early? Get a skin check by a derm once a year and do self-checks once a month.
New Places to Look
Check your skin, then compare what you find with the moles in our two-minute cancer test. It could save your life!
Only 56 percent of Glamour readers say they’ve ever given themselves a once-over—but our experts stress that such self-exams are vital. Your monthly self-check doesn’t have to be an hour-long, arduous process, but you need to take a nooks-and-crannies approach. As you’re soaping up in the shower or toweling off, examine your upper back, legs and torso—the most common places young women get melanoma—as well as your face, arms, shoulders and these often-overlooked areas:
Your underarms. They’re easy to peek at while you shave.
Your butt and the crease of the buttocks. Use a hand-held mirror to check your rear view.
Your genitals. Scan everything—the bikini line, labia and even the vaginal opening.
Inside your mouth and nose. Look for bumps or whitish, tender spots that don’t heal.
Your fingernails and toenails. Brownish streaks or bruiselike “ink marks” under the nails are red flags.
__Your breasts.__Don’t miss the undersides.
__Your ears.__Check behind them and inside the folds of the upper ears.
Your scalp. A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports that melanomas on the scalp and neck are nearly twice as fatal as those found on your arms or legs. Use a comb or hair-dryer to push your hair out of the way so that you can get a good look.
The soles of your feet and between your toes. The type of skin cancer that often occurs on the feet—acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM)—is more common in people of color. It usually starts out as a brown or black spot or may look like a bruise that doesn’t fade.
The palms of your hands. Another common spot for ALMs.
How to Know If Your Mole May Be Dangerous
If your mole or freckle has any of these ABCDEs from the American Academy of Dermatology—or the F and G traits our experts say you should also look out for—get it checked!
One half of the mole, spot or bump doesn’t look like the other.
The edges are blurred or jagged, or in a geometrical shape rather than roundish.
The spot changes color or has varying hues of brown, pink or any other color.
Any spot larger than a pencil eraser is suspicious, but note weird moles of any size.
Moles that grow or change shape or color should be checked by a doctor.
Cancerous spots may simply look different from your other moles. Don’t ignore a hunch.
Any bump or mole that’s crusty, itchy, bloody, scaly or scabbed over could be bad news.