Finding skin cancer early

When skin cancer (non-melanoma or melanoma) is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Get regular health checkups and see your doctor if you have any symptoms or are worried about your health.

If you have a higher than average risk, you may need to visit your doctor more often to check for skin cancer. Talk to your doctor about what can help find skin cancer early including checking your skin and having skin exams by a trained health professional.

Checking your skin

You should check your skin regularly for changes. This will help you get to know what is normal for your skin and notice when something may be wrong. See your doctor if you find any changes on your skin.

How to check your skin

Check your skin in a well-lit room. Use a mirror so you can look closely at your entire body.

Raise your arms and look at the right and left sides of your body in the mirror. Check your underarm areas and both sides of your arms. Look at your hands, each finger, between your fingers and your fingernails.

Look at the back, front and sides of your legs. Look at the tops and soles of your feet, your toenails and the spaces between your toes. Also check your genital area and between your buttocks.

Look at your face, neck, back of your neck and your scalp. Use a hand mirror and full-length mirror, along with a comb, to check your scalp.

Have someone you trust help you check areas that are hard to see.

What to look for

Skin cancer usually starts as an abnormal area or change on any part of the skin. Look for and make note of any changes including:

  • a sore that doesn’t heal or comes back after healing
  • a mole or sore that oozes, bleeds or is crusty
  • a change in the colour, size or shape of a mole or birthmark
  • a growth or area that is itchy, irritated or sore
  • rough or scaly red patches
  • small, smooth and shiny lumps that are pearly white, pink or red
  • pale white or yellow flat areas that look like scars
  • raised lumps that indent in the centre

What to do if you find a change on your skin

Tell your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any changes to your skin. Your doctor will do a skin exam to check the specific area and look for any signs of skin cancer. You may be referred to a specialist, such as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. You doctor may do a skin biopsy to check for cancer.

Skin exams

A skin exam allows your doctor or other trained health professional to look for any signs of skin cancer or abnormal areas of skin. It is often done as part of a yearly health checkup. Getting regular and thorough skin exams can help find skin cancer early.

Find out more about skin exams.

Expert review and references

  • Aaron DM . Moles (melanocytic nevi) . Beers MH, Berkow R (eds.) . Merck Manual Professional Edition . 2013 :
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology . Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Screening . 2016 :
  • Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation . Early Detection . Edmonton, AB :
  • Cancer Research UK. Cancer Insight for GPs: What You Need To Know About Skin Cancer. Cancer Research UK; 2017:
  • Christensen SR, Leffell DJ . Cancer of the skin. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 92:1314-1336.
  • Johnson MM, Leachman SA, Aspinwall LG, et al . Skin cancer screening: recommendations for data-driven screening guidelines and a review of the US Preventive Services Task Force controversy . Melanoma Management . 2017 .
  • National Cancer Institute . Skin Cancer Screening (PDQ®) Patient Version . 2017 :
  • Wernli KJ, Henrikson NB, Morrison CC, Nguyen M, Pocobelli G, Blasi PR . Screening for skin cancer in adults updated evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force . JAMA . 2016 .

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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