It may be embarrassing at first, say researchers, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

December 16, 2016
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If stripping down and asking your significant other to examine every inch of your body sounds more anxiety-inducing than romantic, you’re not alone. Many women feel this way, say the authors of a new study on partner skin-cancer screenings. But the benefits of such a practice outweigh the embarrassment, their research suggests. And don’t worry, they say: The awkwardness fades over time.

The new study focused on people who had previously been treated for early-stage melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma survivors are at increased risk of getting the disease a second time, so doctors wanted to see if training them, and their partners, to recognize troublesome moles could help them spot recurrences early.

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Researchers from Northwestern University recruited 395 patients who had irregular moles surgically removed. These participants, along with their significant others, received skin self-examination training either from a doctor, by reading a handbook, or by listening to exercises on a tablet. Another 99 patients, who served as the control group in the study, received no training.

Each pair (494 total) was then asked to perform skin examinations on each other, every one or two months, to check for and record mole irregularities. Every four months, participants also answered questions about how embarrassed they felt with their partner examining them, and how confident they were with their own mole-spotting skills.

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The results, published in JAMA Dermatology, were positive all around. Participants who received exam training caught far more mole irregularities than those in the control group, and they also trusted themselves (and their partners) to catch irregularities more as the months went on. They also reported feeling more comfortable about having their partner examine their skin.

“As they each grow more confident in their decision-making, the trust between them becomes stronger,” said lead author June Robinson, M.D., research professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a press release. “When the trust is there, there’s no issue with embarrassment."

While self-examination is an important part of skin-cancer screening, involving a partner is also a good idea. Melanoma can develop in hard-to-see areas like behind the ears and knees, the top of the head, and around the swimsuit line on a woman’s buttocks.

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“These aren’t parts of the body that most females like to have examined by their male partner, but at some point, they realized they’re just looking at the moles, not the cellulite," said Dr. Robinson. “We found as long as the benefit is strong enough, it overcomes whatever potential embarrassment there might be between the partners.”

And for heterosexual couples, there’s more reason to pair up: The researchers also found that men’s and women’s mole observations seem to complement each other. Men were better at noticing border irregularities, while women are better at seeing color variations.

“The pairs realize, ‘We need to help each other here,’” Robinson said. “If he sees borders better and she sees colors better, those two heads are better than one when finding the irregularities.”

Partner screenings are a good idea for anyone who may have a tendency to develop melanoma, says Dr. Robinson—including people who have had skin cancer in the past, have a close relative who had skin cancer, worked outdoors for many years, had 10 or more indoor tanning sessions, or whose skin burns easily. This year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said there is not enough evidence to recommend regular full-body exams in a doctor’s office to prevent skin cancer, but added that people should still check their own bodies regularly.

Dr. Robinson’s team is conducting further research to determine whether an online partner-training program would be as effective as the training participants got in this study. For now, she says, people should ask their dermatologists for tips on screening themselves and their partners at home. 

She also encourages people to keep an eye on any spots they think may meet the criteria for suspicious moles. Think ABCDE: asymmetrical, borders that are uneven or irregular, color that’s not uniform throughout, diameter of 5 millimeters or more (about the size of a pencil eraser), and evolution—or change—over time.

“They should monitor the mole for a month to see if one of the features changes,” Dr. Robinson told Real Simple. “If they note a change, they should make an appointment with their doctor and tell the doctor what they noticed.” It’s okay if you can’t be seen right away, she adds, but ask for a slot within two weeks.

And if you don’t have a partner, you can still give yourself a good skin exam with the help of a bright light and a hand mirror. “Sometimes a close friend or relative can be recruited to help check hard-to-see spots” Dr. Robinson adds, “or ask a hairdresser or barber to help with spots on your head.”

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