Having a spouse, family member or friend check those “hard to see” spaces on your skin for suspicious lesions is a known way to help spot and fight skin cancer.
Now, new research suggests these skin-check partnerships offer another benefit: Helping to build stronger, deeper relationships.
Partners in the skin cancer checks “were empowered by a desire to help their friend or relative and have a good time with them,” explained study lead author Dr. June Robinson, a research professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.
Her team published the findings Sept. 30 in JAMA Dermatolgy.
Skin cancer remains the leading form of new cancer diagnosed in the United States. Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and people previously diagnosed with melanoma are 10 times more likely to develop more melanomas.
Skin exams aimed at spotting a suspicious mole or lesion early on are key to beating the disease.
However, as anyone who’s tried knows, certain areas of the body — the back, back of legs and scalp — are tough to accurately scan on your own.
The new study included nearly 500 melanoma survivors and their skin-check partners, both averaging 55 years of age. While some of the people had a spouse or other life companion do the checking, in many other cases the skin-check partner was a friend, child, parent, sibling or another relative who did not live with the patient.
While prior research has focused on spousal teams, Robinson explained that in the new study “a lot of widows who had a melanoma no longer had a spouse and lived alone.”
However, these women “really wanted to be able to participate,” she said, and the researchers asked the women if they might have someone else who would agree to be their skin-check partner.
All of them did, and many of the women turned the experience into a regular social event.
“All of these widows had a woman friend or relative that they could count on helping them,” Robinson said. “The ladies made a plan to have a ‘skin check day’ once a month, then go have lunch or see a movie.”
Training helped — nearly 400 of the patient/partner pairs underwent special skin-check training beforehand on what to look for, while others didn’t have such training. Those in the training group were taught how to assess moles and the partners were invited by a dermatologist to examine the patient’s back during a clinic visit.
According to the researchers, training improved patients’ confidence in doing skin examinations, but the degree of improvement was also highly affected by the bond and interaction between the partners.
The spouses, family members and friends of the melanoma survivors “learned how to do the skin checks and were very reliable doing so,” Robinson said. “Some found new melanomas on their friends. None of them were embarrassed about checking the other person’s skin.”
In fact, the greatest benefit of the training was seen in pairs who had previously spent the least time together and had the lowest levels of happiness, according to the study.
“While dermatologists are most likely not going to be able to change relationship quality, pairs who were given [the skin check] to perform together did so,” the researchers said.
Robinson is also editor of JAMA Dermatology.
The American Cancer Society has more about melanoma.