Know the Signs: Skin Cancer

Know the Signs: Skin Cancer

Reduce your risk by learning the signs and symptoms of skin cancer.

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

It’s been estimated that in 2016 alone, over 76,000 will people will be diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Around 10,000 of those people will not survive their diagnosis.

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

But it’s critical to be aware of the signs and symptoms.

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: BCCs are the most common form of skin cancer. These skin 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: SCCs are the second most common type of skin cancer. They typically appear on the nose, ears and lips. SCC’s 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 quickly and begin treatment.

Skin cancer signs and symptoms

  • 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.” 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 Murina. These areas are also persistent and won’t go away on their own. They can look like warts, or appear as an open sore 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 it’s 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 self-exam.

“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.”

She adds that “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 every six-month skin cancer screening. They simply don’t have enough evidence to definitively say the benefits outweigh the risks for everyone.

Screening risks are minimal. If your doctor finds a suspicious mole, they’ll cut off some of the tissue to look at under a microscope, called a biopsy. The procedure could leave a scar or cause anxiety.

However, the screening itself isn’t invasive—your doctor will run a special lighted magnifying glass over your skin to see if you have any new or changing spots. 

Skin cancer is the number one form of cancer in the US, so a screening is probably worth it. 

Updated by Rose Hayes.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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