British Columbia

A checklist for identifying skin cancers

Board certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Marcie Ulmer shares the A-B-C-D-E method of identifying melanoma.

Experts say melanoma can be deadly if not diagnosed, easily cured if caught early

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and using a broad spectrum sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. (Canadian Press)

It took Kathy Barnard four visits to the doctor before she had a confirmed diagnosis of Stage 4 melanoma. It was Mother's Day in 2003 when she got the news.

Now, the founder of the Save Your Skin Foundation advocates for awareness and diligent sun protection.

"I didn't just have one treatment, I've had four. I've lost numerous body parts," Barnard told Michelle Eliot, guest host of B.C. Almanac.

Barnard has had tumours removed from her bowels, lost a kidney and undergone painful treatments.

She said she's a member of what she calls "the baby oil generation," referring to a past era in which many sunbathers slathered their skin with the oil to speed tanning though it's not a sunscreen.

Today she is extra diligent with sun protection and an active voice in warning against the dangers of skin cancer.

"When I see babies and little kids outside now, their little bare feet are showing or they don't have a hat on, honestly I could almost throw up," she said.

Types of skin cancer

There are two main types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma.

Melanoma is a cancer of the pigment-producing cells in the skin and is the most serious type of skin cancer, according to Dr. Marcie Ulmer, a clinical instructor at the department of dermatology and skin science at the University of British Columbia.

A melanoma spot. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Pittsburgh Department of Dermatology (The Canadian Press)

"Melanoma skin cancer is highly curable if caught early but they do have the ability to progress and spread to other areas in the body," she said.

Melanoma progresses in stages from zero to four. The higher the stage, the farther the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma, which makes up 75 to 80 per cent of all skin cancers, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. It also includes squamous cell carcinoma and other, more rare cancer types.

Identifying melanoma

Ulmer recommends regularly checking your own skin for signs of melanoma or changes in the skin's condition.

"If you notice a change, the best thing is to report it to your doctor. If you're in doubt the best thing to do is check it out," she said, adding that the sooner melanoma is diagnosed, the easier it is to cure.

People should also be on the lookout for pimples that don't heal, scabs or patches that looks like eczema, she said.

Ulmer uses what she calls the A-B-C-D-E system of checking:

Asymmetry: "If you draw an imaginary line down your mole it should look the same on both sides, it should be symmetrical. If it's asymmetrical you should have it checked by your doctor."

Border irregularity: "If the borders look irregular or ragged we want to have them checked."

Colour: "A mole should be one colour or sometimes a mildly atypical mole might be two colours, but if a mole is changing colour and certainly if you see blacks, blues, reds, anything unusual it should be checked."

Diameter: "If a mole is growing it should be checked. The average size of a mole is about 6 millimetres or the size of a pencil-tip eraser, as a guideline."

Evolution: "That's basically any change. So any change in colour, size, shape or a symptom — so itching, tenderness or bleeding."

With files from CBC Radio One's B.C. Almanac