What Does Skin Cancer Really Look Like?
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What Does Skin Cancer Really Look Like?

How to tell what splotches, sores and other marks on your skin really mean.

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By Olivia DeLong

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly one in five Americans will have some type of skin cancer in their lifetime. To put that into perspective, 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed every day.

Skin cancer is largely caused by frequent sun exposure, particularly exposure that resulted in sunburn or blistered skin. The ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun cause skin damage and DNA damage that leads to abnormal skin growth. UV rays come in two forms: UVA, or long-wave, and UVB, or short-wave. They are both harmful to your skin, and both contribute to aging, eye damage and skin cancer.

Some people are more at risk for skin cancer than others, including those who have:

  • Fair skin, freckles, blonde hair, red hair or blue eyes
  • A history of intense sun exposure or sunburn
  • A history of using tanning beds
  • A lot of moles
  • A family history of melanoma
  • A compromised immune system

It’s important to remember that skin cancer—no matter what type it is—may look and feel differently for everyone and appear in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, so it’s always important to consult with your dermatologist if you notice something out of the ordinary. It takes specialized knowledge to know whether a spot is harmless or cancerous.

Here’s a visual guide to the most common types of skin cancer, plus some of the characteristics you should be aware of.

Know your melanoma ABCDEs

2 / 16 Know your melanoma ABCDEs

Moles and lesions can be hard to identify, but to help you understand what to look for, the American Academy of Dermatology has put together an easy-to-detect guide. Talk with your dermatologist if you notice any of these:

A (Asymmetry): Half of the mole or spot is unlike the other half.

B (Border): The outside lines are uneven, scalloped or poorly defined.

C (Color): The color varies from one side to another and can have various shades of tan, brown, black or even white, red or blue.

D (Diameter): It’s larger than a pencil eraser.

E (Evolving): The spot gets larger, changes shape or fluctuates in color over time.

If you notice a spot that is different from others, or that changes, itches or bleeds, you should make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist.

 

Basal cell carcinomas may be nodular and shiny

3 / 16 Basal cell carcinomas may be nodular and shiny

The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that 8 out of 10 skin cancers are BCCs. This type of cancer can appear almost anywhere on the body, but are most likely to form on the head, neck and arms and other areas that are consistently exposed to the sun.

Some types of BCC are nodular and shiny, like the image above.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Basal cell carcinomas may be raised growths

4 / 16 Basal cell carcinomas may be raised growths

Basal cell carcinomas can also appear as raised red or pink growths like in the image above. The edges of the growth are often slightly raised, sometimes with a crusted indentation in the middle of the lesion. Most BCCs do not spread to other areas of the body. They are easily treated in most cases but can leave a disfiguring scar if allowed to grow.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Basal cell carcinomas can appear as pearly bumps or nodules

5 / 16 Basal cell carcinomas can appear as pearly bumps or nodules

These bumps are usually pink, red or white and have a shiny surface. They may also be tan, black or brown and can be mistaken for a regular mole.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Basal cell carcinomas may look like scarring

6 / 16 Basal cell carcinomas may look like scarring

Scar-like areas are also common with basal cell carcinomas. These may appear as white, yellow or waxy areas, with textures that appear shiny, stretched or taut.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Basal cell carcinomas can be dry and patchy

7 / 16 Basal cell carcinomas can be dry and patchy

Basal cell carcinomas can also present as reddish or dry, crusty patches that may be painful or itchy. These types of lesions usually appear around the face, chest, shoulder, arms or legs.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Squamous cell carcinomas can form as dome-like lesions

8 / 16 Squamous cell carcinomas can form as dome-like lesions

Another common skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Although it is more likely to spread than basal cell carcinoma, SCC can be successfully treated if caught early. SCC usually forms on areas of the skin that are repeatedly exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands and—for women—the lower legs.

SCC can form as a dome-like lesion that may turn firm and crusty, as shown in this image.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Squamous cell carcinomas may be raised and sore-like

9 / 16 Squamous cell carcinomas may be raised and sore-like

Squamous cell carcinoma can also appear as a raised red bump, sore or open wound. Sometimes, these areas will bleed or take the shape and feel of a wart.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Squamous cell carcinomas can be rash-like and patchy

10 / 16 Squamous cell carcinomas can be rash-like and patchy

Other squamous cell carcinomas can appear as rash-like patches similar to this one. The skin’s surface can also become scaly and rough.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Actinic keratosis areas are dry and scaly

11 / 16 Actinic keratosis areas are dry and scaly

Actinic keratosis (AK), also known as solar keratosis, is a precancerous form of sun damage that can appear in areas that get a lot of sun exposure. People also often have more than one. If left untreated, these lesions can turn into squamous cell carcinoma.

Most AK spots are dry, scaly and coarse to the touch.

Melanoma can be flat and uneven

12 / 16 Melanoma can be flat and uneven

Although melanoma is not as common as other forms of skin cancer, it’s more dangerous because it tends to spread to other organs if left untreated. This type of cancer originates in the melanocytes, skin cells that make the pigment known as melanin. Melanin is responsible for giving your skin its color.

Most melanomas tend to form on the chest, back and legs, but can develop anywhere on the body, like hands, feet or nail areas.

The most common type of melanoma—especially among Caucasians—is superficial spreading melanoma. These spots are usually flat to the touch, tan and brown, and have uneven borders in like the image above.

Early detection is especially important with melanoma because treatment success is directly related to the size and depth of the cancerous growth.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Melanoma can be nodular and thick

13 / 16 Melanoma can be nodular and thick

As the picture above indicates, some melanomas—around 15 to 30 percent—are nodules, or thick lesions that are usually blackish-blue, bluish-red or colorless. In some cases, these nodules can appear as open sores and may even bleed.

Nodular melanoma is usually invasive when it’s first diagnosed by a dermatologist, and it can penetrate deeper into the skin and even spread to other areas of the body.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Melanoma can be asymmetrical

14 / 16 Melanoma can be asymmetrical

As in the picture above, melanomas can be asymmetrical, with uneven borders. These types of spots can be black, brow, tan, gray and in some cases, pink.

Image credit: American Academy of Dermatology

Skin cancer prevention tips

15 / 16 Skin cancer prevention tips

When in the sun, it’s important that you wear clothing that covers any skin that’s exposed, along with hats and sunglasses. Sunscreen is, of course, also key. Pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Staying in the shade as much as possible when you are outside is helpful, too.

And always steer clear of tanning beds, since their UV rays can increase the risk of melanoma.

In addition to basic sun safety, some doctors suggest that you do a skin self-exam every month to check for suspicious growths. If you see anything unusual, visit your doctor for a more thorough exam. It’s also worth talking to your doctor about whether having a regular in-office skin check makes sense for you, based on your risk factors for skin cancer.

Skin cancer treatments

16 / 16 Skin cancer treatments

Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer you have, the location and size of the lesion and how healthy you are. Dermatologists will usually perform a thorough skin exam or just remove the lesion to determine if you have skin cancer. If the lesion hasn’t spread, simple excision or local treatment is usually all that’s needed.

If you have a non-melanoma skin cancer or actinic keratosis, the most common treatment options include:

  • Liquid nitrogen cryotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Biologic therapy
  • Targeted therapy

If you have early-stage melanoma, surgery may be sufficient. Other options, like immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be recommended if you have more advanced stage melanoma.

You and your doctor can discuss the treatment options that make sense for you.