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Different Skin Cancer Spots and What They Mean

The statistics on skin cancer are scary: One in five Americans will develop it, and one person dies of skin cancer -- usually melanoma, a rare but serious form -- almost every hour. But here’s the good news: It’s usually very treatable, especially when you catch it early. Many experts recommend getting a total body skin exam once a year and doing self-checks at home regularly.

This guide—as well as our AskMD skin cancer consultation—can help provide insight about your moles and spots. If you see anything unusual, be sure to make an appointment with a dermatologist. Only a very trained eye can interpret what you have and what to do next.

It Could Be: Basal Cell Carcinoma

If It Looks Like: A raised, shiny bump that bleeds easily and may have visible, abnormal blood vessels. Basal cell carcinoma may also appear as apale or pinkish patch with raised borders and crust in the center, or as a sore that doesn’t heal.

What You Must Know: According to the American Cancer Society, about 8 out of 10 skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma. This slow-growing cancer tends to not spread.

It Could Be: Squamous Cell Carcinoma

If It Looks Like: A flat brown or reddish patch on the skin accompanied by a rough or scaly skin surface. It can also be a bump or open sore. As the bump or lump grows, it may become dome-shaped or crusty and can bleed. Squamous cell carcinoma usually crops up on areas exposed to the sun.

What You Must Know: While it seldom spreads, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body than basal cell cancers —and it becomes more difficult to treat once it has spread. On rare occasions, SCC can also grow underneath a nail, damaging the nail.

It Could Be: Melanoma

If It Looks Like: An asymmetrical mole—meaning one half is a different shape or size than the other. It is usually (but not always) black or brown, has uneven borders and looks different than the other moles found on the body. 

What You Must Know: Melanoma occurs in less than 5% of all skin cancer cases, but is the deadliest and most aggressive form. Early detection is essential.

It Could Be: Dysplastic Nevus

If It Looks Like: A large mole with irregular borders that come in varying colors. Typically, the center of the mole is raised, while the outer part is flat.

What You Must Know: Dysplastic nevus is noncancerous but often gets mistaken for melanoma. However, if you have a family history of dysplastic nevi, your risk of developing melanoma increases.

It Could Be: Actinic Keratosis

If It Looks Like: A rough bump or patch that shows up on sun-exposed areas such as the face, scalp, lips and back of hands. You often feel it before you see it, since it may just be a rough, flesh-colored patch.

What You Must Know: Actinic keratosis (AK) is a precursor to squamous cell carcinoma about 10 percent of the time.

Visit our Skin Cancer Topic Center for smart strategies to help prevent skin cancer.

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