The 5-Letter Cheat Sheet That Will Save You From Skin Cancer

More than 76,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year - one person every 8 minutes.

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True story: I’ve had a little spot on my face for a few years now. I’ve been all about ignoring it,  but it was my husband who finally insisted that I get it checked out by a dermatologist.

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To my surprise, when I finally made an appointment, my new doc agreed that it could be suspicious and suggested a biopsy, just in case. Turns out it really was fine, but it was certainly a wake-up call about what I could have been ignoring for years — and not even on some tucked away body part — on my face.


My dermatologist had reason to be cautious: According to the American Cancer Society, more than 76,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year (that’s one person every eight minutes), and almost 9,500—or one person an hour—will die. What’s even scarier? People under 30 are the fastest-growing group to be diagnosed with melanoma. Pass the sunscreen, please!

Sunscreen aside—because, let’s face it, all the SPF in the world can’t undo the damage that’s already been done—it’s important that we can recognize the signs of a possible melanoma, or a cancerous mole, on our own bodies or the body of a loved one. Luckily, as Bruce Robinson, MD, a dermatologist in New York City tells me, there’s an easy-to-remember cheat sheet: Just know your ABCDEs.


Here is the 5-letter cheat sheet that will save you from skin cancer:

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1. A is for Asymmetrical Shape

A perfect circle is probably nothing to worry about, while an asymmetrical or irregular shape may be cause for concern. “You should be able to draw a line down the middle of it and both sides should be the same,” Robinson says.

2. B is for Border

Non-cancerous moles usually have smooth, even borders, while melanoma lesions may have jagged, irregular borders—” like the coast of Italy,” Robinson says.


3. C is for Color

Melanoma lesions can have more than one color—black, grey, and pink—or they may have no pigment at all and just look like a raised, red bump. Regular moles, on the other hand, should be just plain grey or brown.

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4. D is for the Diameter

Anything greater than 6 millimeters in diameter—about the size of a pencil eraser—is worth a second look.

5. E is for Evolution

“If a mole itches, burns, starts growing, or becomes a different color, get it checked out immediately,” says Robinson. “Moles aren’t supposed to change; they’re just supposed to hang out there.” It’s up to you to know what’s normal for your own skin and to alert a doctor if something new or different suddenly appears. 


Robinson recommends that everyone, including women in their 20s and 30s, perform a skin self-exam once a month to watch out for any one of these ABCDEs. (You don’t have to have all five for it to be melanoma.)

And yes, you should still get an annual exam from a dermatologist, as well. “The worst that happens is you waste a half hour at your doctor’s office once a year,” he adds. The best thing that could happen? It may save your life. 

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Amanda MacMillan is the health and fitness blogger at Self. Her work has also appeared in publications such as O, Travel + Leisure, Time Out New York, Popular Science,, and National Geographic's The Green Guide.