Know the Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Learn how frequent skin cancer checks can help you spot suspicious moles, bumps, patches, or blemishes early.

Close up of hands of female doctor dermatologist holding new generation dermatoscope, examining birthmarks and moles of a woman lying on her back on an exam table

Updated on June 1, 2022.

Despite better screening methods, more public awareness, and more advanced treatments, the rates of skin cancer continue to rise. 

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, approximately 99,780 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Around 7,650 people will die of the disease. 

The good news is that skin cancer is also one of the easiest cancers to treat and cure when it’s caught early. 

So it’s critical to be aware of the early signs of skin cancer.

Skin cancer basics 

Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells. Damaged DNA causes cells to change and grow out of control. Skin cancer can be caused by both lifelong sun exposure and quicker, more intense exposure to harmful UV rays—like when you get a bad sunburn. Anyone can develop skin cancer, but it’s more common in people with light or fair skin, blonde or red hair, and green, grey, or blue eyes. 

There are three main types of skin cancer. 

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC): This is the most common form of skin cancer. These cancers usually develop on the head, neck, or arms, but they can also show up on the chest, stomach, or legs. BCC used to be most commonly seen in older people, but experts are now seeing people diagnosed at a younger age, thanks to tanning-bed use and increased time in the sun. 
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC): SCCs are the second most common type of skin cancer. They typically appear on the nose, ears, and lips. SCCs are twice as common in men than in women, and usually appear in people over age 50. 
  • Melanoma: Genetics play a bigger role in developing melanoma than they do with other skin cancers, but indoor tanning and prolonged exposure to damaging UV rays also increase your risk, especially if you experience a severe burn during childhood. Melanoma occurs in stages, depending on how widespread it is. The more advanced the stage, the deadlier the melanoma, which is why it’s important to get a diagnosis and begin treatment quickly. 

Skin cancer signs and symptoms

Each type of skin cancer has certain telltale indicators to note. 

Basal cell carcinoma:  Be on the lookout for pearly white or skin-colored bumps that may look like a pimple, says dermatologist Andrea Murina, MD, of Tulane Medical Center in Louisiana.

“What makes it different from a pimple is that it doesn’t heal or go away and tends to bleed very easily,” she says. BCCs will also often have a sore or crust on them and could be mistaken for a scar. 

Squamous cell carcinoma:  SCCs typically show up as thick, scaly patches that can crust and bleed easily, says Dr. Murina. These areas are also persistent and won’t go away on their own. They can look like warts or appear as open sores with raised edges and a pink or red middle. 

Melanoma: The most common sign of melanoma is a mole, bump, or blemish that starts to itch, bleed, change color or shape, or increase in size, says Murina. While they can occur anywhere on the body, more common sites for men are the head, neck, back, and trunk. For women, common locations are the arms and legs.

Use the ABCDE rule to help determine whether a mole may or may not be a melanoma: 

  • Asymmetry: Does one half of the mole look different in size or color than the other? 
  • Border: Is the edge of the mole rough, bumpy, blurry, or irregular? 
  • Color: Is the color different across the mole? Does it include patches of pink, white, red, blue, black, or brown? 
  • Diameter: Is the mole about the size of a pencil eraser or larger? (Keep in mind that sometimes melanomas can be smaller than this.) 
  • Evolving: Is the mole changing in size, shape, or color? 

How to do a self-exam 

One of the best ways to catch skin cancer early is by doing a monthly skin cancer check

“Get undressed and use the mirror to examine current moles and freckles,” Murina says. “Look for changes or new spots that you haven’t seen before, and make sure that the spots you do have are staying the same or similar to what you remember. Any bump, mark, or blemish that changes over time or isn’t healing should be checked out by a dermatologist.” 

Have your dermatologist look at any concerning spots and then get follow-up skin exams according to the schedule they recommend. You may need more frequent exams if you have certain risk factors like reduced immunity, a light complexion, a family history of skin cancer, or a previous skin cancer diagnosis. 

Should you get routine skin cancer screenings? 

In 2016, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced that there’s “insufficient evidence to recommend for or against” routine skin cancer screenings. 

But don’t break up with your dermatologist just yet. The task force isn’t recommending you skip your annual or six-month skin cancer check. Experts simply don’t have enough evidence to definitively say that the benefits of regular skin cancer screenings outweigh the risks for everyone. 

A screening itself isn’t invasive. Most likely, your healthcare provider (HCP) will run a special lighted magnifying glass over your skin to see if you have any new or changing spots. If they find a suspicious mole, they’ll cut off some of the tissue to look at under a microscope, called a biopsy. The procedure has some downsides, as it could leave a scar or cause anxiety. 

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, so a screening is probably worth it for most people. 

Article sources open article sources

American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer. Last Revised: January 12, 2022.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin Cancer. Last updated: April 22, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic Information About Skin Cancer. Page last reviewed: April 18, 2022.

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