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What do I do if I find something unusual on my skin? Here's some advice from an expert

Roseleen Flaherty from the Irish Cancer Society talks about how to check if you have skin cancer.

Roseleen Flaherty

WE TAKE CARE of our skin, as evidenced by the multi-million euro skin care industry.

Yet, skin cancer can occur on any part of the skin and is the most common cancer in Ireland. Ireland has the 14th highest rate of skin cancer in the world. However, if detected early, it can be one of the easiest cancers to cure.

You are more likely to survive cancer if you spot it at an early stage. If you notice a change, have it checked by a doctor. Like most cancers, the earlier skin cancer is found and treated, the less likelihood of the disease spreading and causing serious illness or death.

Signs to look out for

Diagnosing skin cancer is not that simple as there are many non-cancerous skin lesions that develop due to sun exposure. Doctors look for features such as its location, history, shape, colour and depth that may indicate that the lesion could be cancerous.

Talk to your doctor if you notice anything unusual, such as unexplained changes, lumps or swelling.

Look out for the following signs:

  • Any abnormal bleeding, weight loss or pain that is not going away
  • A persistent cough or shortness of breath or hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing, indigestion or heartburn, and bloating
  • Sores or mouth ulcers that don’t heal
  • Any unusual changes in bowel or bladder movements
  • Changes to the skin such as a new mole or changes to an existing mole

Our bodies are always communicating with us. If you if you notice any unusual change in how your body works, talk to your doctor. The chances are it will not be cancer.

What happens next

Most people begin by visiting their family doctor (GP). He or she will ask some questions about your health and examine your skin.

In most cases, the GP can tell if the lesion is harmless or not just by looking at your skin. Some may examine it using a handheld device called a dermascope, similar to the one used to examine the ears. It magnifies the lesion allowing specific features to be seen which are not visible to the naked eye.

Skin clinics may use a computerised dermascope which allows high-level magnification and digital storage of images. This technology allows lesions to be monitored over time. If the lesion has not changed over a three to six month period, it is very unlikely to be skin cancer and can be left alone.

Treatment

If concerned, your GP may refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist) or plastic surgeon, though some GPs may decide to treat you in the surgery if they have a special interest in dermatology and are trained in minor surgery.

An excision biopsy is when all the cancer is removed as well as some skin around the affected area. This is to make sure that no cancer cells are left behind. For larger lesions, a skin graft may be required. An excisional biopsy is the only treatment needed to cure non-melanoma skin cancer.

People wonder why all doctors do not just remove everything, even if it is unlikely to be skin cancer. There are several reasons; risk of infection, pain and scarring.

The results from the biopsy will reveal the type of cancer. For superficial or early skin cancers topical chemotherapy may be given, where medicine is put directly on the skin.

Radiotherapy may be used for skin cancers that are difficult to remove or for more advanced skin lesions.

All of this is very manageable, and less needs to be done if the cancer is caught sooner.

Take time today to check your body for changes that might be cancer. Check your whole body, not just your breast and testicles. Don’t be embarrassed about getting it checked; it’s not wasting anyone’s time. It could just save your life.

To find out more or to speak with a cancer specialist nurse in confidence by calling the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700. 10am – 4pm Mon –Fri or by checking out cancer.ie

Roseleen Flaherty is an Irish Cancer Society cancer nurse.

Read: Ireland has the 14th-highest rates of skin cancer in the world

Read: This patch will say you’re at risk of being sunburned before it happens

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Roseleen Flaherty

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