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U-M phone app guides self-exams to help detect skin cancer

University of Michigan

Many Michiganders are among the more than two million Americans diagnosed with skin cancer each year. It's the most common malignancy.

The majority will discover they have basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, but about 50,000 people will learn they have melanoma, which is particularly difficult to treat if not caught early.

A free phone application called UMSkinCheck helps people examine their skin and keep track of changes.

Dr. Michael Sabel, an associate professor of surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School, was the lead physician involved in developing the app with the Department of Innovative Technologies.

"We had patients who took pictures of lesions and followed them over time. We thought this would be useful for all patients," Sabel says. "It's going to take you step by step of taking pictures of different quadrants of your skin, and it will store them so you'll have a library on your phone of what your skin looks like."

The exam should be repeated periodically to create a baseline record of your skin, Sabel says.

"Let's say you notice a lesion on your arm. You take a picture, the app asks questions, and goes back to the library. You pull up the photo of your arm -- the same spot -- and you can compare that to what your arm looked like six or nine months ago," he explains.

Sabel says if you find something you're worried about, you press a button and the app will ask you a series of questions that a dermatologist would ask.

"Is it assymetrical, does it have irregular borders, is it changing, does it itch?"

Sabel says any changes or concerns should be examined by a dermatologist or primary care physician. You can e-mail the photos to your doctor or bring copies of them with you to your appointment.

The app is password protected.

He also says the U-M app is useful for everyone, but is especially important for people who are at high risk for getting skin cancer, including those who have had multiple sunburns or a history of skin cancer. Other factors include having multiple moles, fair skin, light hair and blue eyes.

Some young women fall into the high-risk category because of the popularity of tanning beds, sun lamps and artificial tanning.

But Sabel says men should also monitor their skin.

"This disease is not gender-specific, and men tend to recognize their melanomas later than women," Sabel says. "Women have improved survival because they tend to be more conscious about their appearance. Men don't notice and often come in at a later stage."

The UMSkinCheck app includes a risk calculator from the National Cancer Institute.

Sabel also cautions against using phone applications that claim to diagnose skin cancer.

"It's very concerning that an app may tell you what you have is not a melanoma because not all lesions look like the ones in textbooks," Sabel says. "I'm worried they may lead people to think they can ignore something because the app told them it wasn't cancer."

Sabel says that no app can diagnose cancer: Only a physician and a biopsy can do that.