I don't want to be alarmist, but I also don't want to be stupid.
May 11, 2013 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Suppose you've noticed a growing red skin blemish on your arm that's irregular, raised, and a little flaky towards the center. At what point do you start to worry it's skin cancer and go see a doctor?

So, about a month ago, I noticed this tiny bump on my forearm. I thought it was a pimple, and I picked at it a bit, and it didn't pop. Then it started to get red -- but I figured this was just some reaction to my picking at it. But it kept growing larger. For a while, it looked a lot like a small burn. About two weeks ago, I noticed it had an irregular shape, and just a little bit of flaky skin in the middle. I was worried for a while that it was some sort of fungus or rash, but it doesn't really itch or anything. (It does sting a bit, if I touch it.) Right now, it's a little bit larger than a pencil eraser. It doesn't bleed at all, and it doesn't appear to have any veins in it or anything. (Overall, so far as frightening skin blemishes go, it's been pretty unobtrusive.)

Just this morning, I remembered what I had learned in high school physiology about skin cancer, and it dawned on me that this is a wee bit closer to the description of what to look out for than I'd like. But, this isn't a mole: I never had a mole in this spot of my arm. And, furthermore, it's only been there about a month. That seems like way too short a time frame for skin cancer -- although, I have no idea what I'm talking about.

So, given that I've had this skin blemish only for about a month, and given that I really don't want spend my money and time on going to the doctor just to be told, "Eh, if it's still there after $TIMEFRAME, come back," when should I be thinking about making an appointment with my doctor? Now? A month from now, if the blemish is still there? Six months from now?
posted by meese to Health & Fitness (33 answers total)
Why not just bite the bullet and go to a doctor rather than posting a question to AskMe about whether you should go to the doctor.

It may help to post a picture of this mark. But, really, just go to the doctor.
posted by dfriedman at 12:35 PM on May 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

Look at it this way: Even if it's not cancer, it's SOMETHING, it's been there for a month already, it's not going away, and it's growing.

Go to the doctor.
posted by erst at 12:41 PM on May 11, 2013

Just go. If it's nothing you'll feel better. If it's not nothing, you'll get prompt treatment.

Skin cancer can kill you real quick if it spreads beyond the immediate area. Make an appointment and go.
posted by something something at 12:42 PM on May 11, 2013

It's getting larger, right? Now is the time to visit the doctor! Not because OMG cancer! but because OMG yucky infection or fungus or allergic reaction. I mean, it could always be cancer, but it probably isn't - still, you don't want to end up with a palm-sized fungal thing in six weeks, right?
posted by Frowner at 12:42 PM on May 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

P.S. A doctor is not going to make fun of you for being concerned over something that is not cancer. They're going to think you're taking responsible care of your health. I go in for regular skin checks and there is nothing I have on my body that is particularly of concern to me. But my dad died of melanoma and that shit is no joke.
posted by something something at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2013

Best answer: It's a new, weird blemish that is growing and isn't healing. While there's a small risk that this could be a squamous cell carcinoma (the type of skin cancer that doesn't start in a mole), and while it's more likely that it's a benign lesion like actinic keratosis, it's worth getting checked out.

If it's AK or ringworm or something else like that, a dermatologist can assess it and either treat it or advise you just to keep any eye on it. Who wants an even bigger weird blemish on their arm?

If it is cancer, you want it diagnosed and treated early.
posted by maudlin at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You sound worried. You should get some reassurance from your doctor. You're worth the money.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

The thing is, doctors really rather see you come in with something they can tell you is trivial, than with something non-trivial that's beyond repair. You will be doing yourself a favor and your doctor.
posted by Namlit at 12:45 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just go - if it's a fungus or something, you will be SO GLAD you went BEFORE it started itching.
posted by SMPA at 12:51 PM on May 11, 2013

Nthing, it is probably not cancer, but it is worth a visit to the doc anyway, whatever it is.
posted by mattu at 12:53 PM on May 11, 2013

Best answer: Also, stop touching it.
posted by SMPA at 12:54 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

(In my experience, doctors do NOT glance at a skin lesion and say "eh, come back later." They give you a cream to try and then say "eh, come back later.")
posted by SMPA at 12:56 PM on May 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

When you start typing up an AskMe question about your new and growing skin lesion is (coincidentally) the exact time when you should make an appointment to ask your doctor about your new and growing skin lesion.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 1:44 PM on May 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

nthing it. see the doctor. It doesn't have to be cancer to be worth getting checked out.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:43 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

"At what point do you start to worry it's skin cancer and go see a doctor?"

Personally? Right away. Usually it takes me about three days of not sleeping while convinced I'm dying of cancer to call the doctor. It's never been skin cancer, but I have never been laughed at for this level of hysterical overawareness about potential skin cancer.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:55 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any time you want. I'm sure your doctor would rather you come in with a weird wart/rash than come in with some kind of immediate skin death. They won't mind.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:00 PM on May 11, 2013

I had a spot like this pop up on my leg, and I come from a family that is prone to skin cancers. This spot on my leg looked a LOT like a basal cell carcinoma, and I hemmed and hawed about it for maybe a month and then made an appointment with my doctor and got a referral to a dermatologist.

Turns out it's just a benign cyst that sometimes gets a little bigger or redder due to various factors. Scared the bejesus out of me for that month or so, but the dermatologist took a good look at it and was like, "You can relax, this isn't cancerous, and we can remove it if you want but leaving it alone won't cause you any harm." At no point did anyone laugh at me for having it checked. I didn't have it removed because it would have cost a boatload of money and left a much bigger divot and scar. It's been there for probably a decade now, no big deal.

Anyway. My point is, make an appointment on Monday and get this thing looked at. If the doctor thinks it looks worrisome, they're not going to let you leave with a "pfff, come back in a month if it's still there, bye now." They're either going to prescribe something if it's an infection or a fungal thingy, and if it's more serious they're going to want to biopsy and test. If it's just a cyst thingy like mine, they might talk to you about removal options.

Just go get it checked.

(And on the "skin cancer can't crop up that fast, can it?" tip... not to scare the bejesus out of you, but yes, it can. Which is why you need to see a doctor when you notice weird shit happening on your skin, so that if it turns out to be a problem it can be dealt with fast before it gets too big to fix. I wish my beloved friend who died of melanoma two years ago had gone to a doctor at the first sign of weird shit, you know?)
posted by palomar at 3:13 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dermatologists are never annoyed by "check out this weird thing on my arm that I'm worried about" visits. It's their bread and butter; and whatever it is needs to be dealt with. They'll probably biopsy it so be prepared for that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:18 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Now is the time to go to the doctor.

I just had skin cancer! Like two weeks ago! And the spot in question was an otherwise unremarkable freckle that had always had irregular borders and been a little flaky, that had recently become persistently itchy as well. It did not look like ZOMG cancer.

The biopsy process was pretty harmless -- essentially like taking a tiny scrape off the top, not the sort of ordeal like twenty years ago involving stitches. It'll take like two minutes, seriously. And then you'll know.
posted by Andrhia at 3:24 PM on May 11, 2013

I had something like this, and asked my doctor about it (at my annual checkup that was coincidentally around the same time). In my case it was a rash and it cleared up with hydrocortisone cream and extra moisturizer, but I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't asked.

Even if it's nothing serious, it doesn't sound like it's going away on its own, and it will be cheaper and easier to treat now than later. So just go!
posted by zeptoweasel at 3:26 PM on May 11, 2013

Going to a doctor now also establishes a medically-informed baseline to which it can be compared after hypothetical $TIMEFRAME. If it is something wait-and-see, they're going to want that no matter when they initially observe it, so you might as well start now.
posted by teremala at 3:27 PM on May 11, 2013

My partner comes for a family where skin cancers are so common that they go to the dermatologist BEFORE they see anything. None of them have been laughed at for having a clean bill of health.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:25 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, just go. I was going to say wait a week or two for it to go away, but then I read you have already had it for a month. No doctor is going to make you feel bad for being cautious, and if it is something serious it's much better to treat it early.
posted by apricot at 4:26 PM on May 11, 2013

I made an appointment with a doctor who checks the entire body for skin cancer. I'm glad I did because I had one cut out. It was just a little dark spot. Plus he kindly froze off a wart for me. Go.
posted by b33j at 4:48 PM on May 11, 2013

My doctor does tend to say about skin stuff "Eh, come back in [x time frame] if it increases in size." But he says this because the things I've come to him about have not obviously been growing (and don't look otherwise dangerous to him). So he measures them and tells me to wait a month and see if they grew.

But there's no doubt that yours is growing, so I doubt your doctor is going to send you away with no answer.
posted by lollusc at 5:57 PM on May 11, 2013

A month? This is obviously not going away on its own and from what you described, skin cancer is in the realm of possibility. They are going to biopsy it, not tell you to come back later. Go to a doctor now.

Also, I don't know where you got this idea that it absolutely takes skin cancer longer than a month to grow. It depends how aggressive it is. And also, skin cancer can grow from existing moles, but usually it is a completely new growth. The fact that you never had a mole at that spot in your arm is absolutely not a reason to dismiss a possibility of skin cancer. Honestly, have you googled skin cancer at all before coming to AskMeFi?
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:40 AM on May 12, 2013

Also, it's probably not cancer, but you also made a lot of assumptions about skin cancer that you really shouldn't make. I wouldn't freak out, but I would see a doctor ASAP.

I used to have annual checkups with eye doctors, dentists, primary care, gynecologist, etc. but I never thought to see a dermatologist. Then I knew a woman who lost her grandson at age 15 to skin cancer and I made an appointment. Glad I did, they found an abnormal mole that I thought nothing of. I'll be getting checked every year now.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:59 AM on May 12, 2013

> I really don't want spend my money and time on going to the doctor

You've already spent time worrying about it, and posting this AskMe. When I saw a dermatologist for a few odd moles the appointment was short, even with one needing to be biopsied (it was nothing). If you have insurance, it won't cost you much; if you don't have insurance and it turns out to be something serious, then you'll save money by going sooner than later. Your excuses are invalid! Go.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:44 AM on May 12, 2013

Oh, and a dermatologist will never mock you for coming in to have a spot checked, just like a 911 operator will never be angry at you for calling even though you're not 100% certain it's an emergency.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:46 AM on May 12, 2013

I really don't want spend my money and time on going to the doctor.

You will regret this immensely if it is a cancer.

Go. Get it looked at. Get it sorted out.
posted by Jilder at 9:13 AM on May 12, 2013

I am going to add my voice to the chorus: go to the doctor. Like Eyebrows McGee, I also am hyper-aware of skin changes and will rush to the doctor and be like OMG WHAT IS THIS all the time, and my dermatologist appreciates it because she says patients who pay attention and go to the doctor when they notice changes usually catch things earlier than patients who wait.

And not to scare you, but I had an actual melanoma the last time I went to the derm with a changing mole. It was caught very early and removed and now I am completely cancer-free, but it changed over a period of two months. If I had waited longer, it could have possibly spread. So go to the doctor. It's probably just a rash, but you will have much more peace of mind after you find that out. And if it is cancer, you'll catch it early. It's win-win.
posted by bedhead at 11:08 AM on May 12, 2013

Right now, you're batting .600 on the "Know Your Moles" checklist--you've got Border (irregular), Diameter (bigger than a pencil eraser), and Evolving. Based on that alone, I would think a doctor would want to see what you've got going on, *especially* if it's still growing. And seriously, if a doctor shrugs you off, I'll organize a MetaFilter "our loved ones died of skin cancer" phone tree and we'll call his/her office EVERY HOUR until he/she is shamed into giving up medicine forever. You're doing exactly the right thing here.
posted by epj at 6:17 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. It's weird: there are some things that seem so OBVIOUSLY TRUE when another person says it, but which you brush off when you think it to yourself. For me, one of those is, "If I'm worried, I should go see a doctor."

So, I went. I was surprised by how seriously my doctor treated the small, unobtrusive blemish. Now I just have to wait.
posted by meese at 1:45 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

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