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Study: Examine for Skin Cancer with a Partner

Northwestern University researchers found couples that learn skin cancer self-exams together are more likely to continue them than individuals who learn the technique alone.

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January 23, 2007 | by Marla Paul

CHICAGO --- If you learn how to examine yourself for skin cancer with your partner, you are more likely to follow up with self-exams that could detect early melanoma and save your life.

Northwestern University researchers found couples that learn skin cancer self-exams together are more likely to continue them than individuals who learn the technique alone. 

People who practice self-exams are treated at an earlier stage in the disease, have 50 percent less advanced melanoma and markedly lower mortality from melanoma, the study said. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, causing 8,000 deaths a year in the U.S. An estimated 62,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

“People who learn with their partners place more importance on the self-exams and have more confidence in their ability to practice them,” said June K. Robinson, M.D., lead author of the study and professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study was published in January Archives of Dermatology.

Northwestern University researchers performed a trial of a skin self-examination program with 130 participants who previously had melanoma. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to undergo the instruction alone; the other half received instruction with their live-in partners.

During the instruction, a research assistant explained how to examine moles for asymmetry of shape, border irregularity, color variation, a diameter of 6 millimeters or more and evolving of the lesion - all of which can indicate melanoma. (These are known as the ABCDE rules of early detection.)   

At a four-month follow up visit, more single learners had not checked their skin (45 versus 23) whereas more couple learners checked their skin one time (19 versus 9) and several times (13 versus 4.) In addition, paired learning individuals showed stronger intentions to continue performing skin self-examinations on the face and skin in general than the solo-learning individuals.

“Two heads are better than one when trying to learn new things,” Robinson said. “The spouse hears and learns different things than the patient in the skill training session.  Women often detect color change better than men, and men pick up on border irregularity better than women.” Spouses are also better able to check hard-to-see areas like the back, scalp and behind the ears, she noted.

As the U.S. population of adults 65 and older grows by an estimated 20 per cent in the next decade, the mortality from melanoma also is expected to rise because the incidence of the cancer increases with age.

“Deaths from melanoma could be lowered by as much as 60 percent if the general public performed monthly skin self-examinations,” Robinson said. For information on how to check moles call Robinson's research office at 312-695-6829.

This study was supported in part by The National Cancer Institute.

Robinson, who is chief editor of the Archives of Dermatology, was not involved in the editorial evaluation or decision to accept this work for publication.

Topics: Research