Practical Pearls

Tips and Tools for Melanoma Diagnosis

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Because the earliest form of melanoma is curable, prompt detection is of utmost importance. Therefore, tools to detect melanoma and melanoma in situ are increasingly important and patients may inquire about them.


What does your patient need to know at the first visit? Does it apply to all patients?

All patients should have a total-body skin examination at least once per year; however, the frequency may change based on a prior history of melanoma or skin cancer, number of nevi or dysplastic nevi, and a family history of melanoma.

Patients should be completely undressed, and all nail polish or artificial nails should be removed prior to the examination. A complete cutaneous examination involves inspecting all skin surfaces, scalp, ocular and oral mucosa, fingernails/toenails, and genitalia if the patient agrees. Melanoma can occur in non–UV-exposed areas and the patient should be educated. Explain the ABCDEs of melanoma diagnosis to all patients and discuss concerns of any new or changing lesions, pigmented or not.

The patient should be made aware that a series of digital images will be taken for any suspicious lesions for possible short-term monitoring. The patient also may be offered full-body photography or 3D body imaging if the number of nevi warrants it.

Different patient populations have different risks for melanoma. Although melanoma predominately afflicts patients with a light skin type, there are certain types of melanoma, such as acral melanoma, that can be more common in darker skin types.

If a patient has a history of cutaneous melanoma, then the site should be checked for any local recurrence as well as palpation of the draining lymph nodes and regional lymph nodes.

I also let patients know that I will be using tools such as dermoscopy and/or reflectance confocal microscopy to better diagnose equivocal lesions before pursuing a biopsy. A biopsy may be done if there is a level of suspicion for atypia.

The use of dermoscopy, digital imaging, and reflectance confocal microscopy has changed the way we can detect, monitor, and evaluate atypical nevi. These tools can augment practice and possibly cut down on the rate of biopsies. They also are great for equivocal lesions or lesions that are in cosmetically sensitive areas. I use these tools in my everyday practice.

How do you keep patients compliant?

Empowering patients to perform self-examinations as well as examinations with his/her partner may help to reinforce monitoring by a dermatologist.

Provide patients with reading materials on self-examination while they wait in the office for your examination.

What do you do if they refuse treatment?

If patients defer a full-body skin examination, then I try to educate them about risks for UV exposure and the risk factors for both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer. I also provide information on self-examinations so they can check at home for any irregularly shaped or changing moles.

What resources do you recommend to patients for more information?

It is important for patients to understand the risk factors for melanoma and the long-term prognosis of melanoma. I direct them to the American Academy of Dermatology’s website ( for education and background about melanoma. Also, the Skin Cancer Foundation has inspiring patient stories (

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