The best way to catch skin cancer before it spreads and becomes difficult to cure is by careful and regular self examination and routine exams by your healthcare provider. See our Prevention and Early Detection Section for more on these exams.
Looking for signs of skin cancer is a challenge because most of us have some brownish spots on our skin—birthmarks, moles, freckles—which are usually normal. But some may be skin cancers. You may notice changes to your skin during your self-exam, or at more casual times, when you put on lotion, look in the mirror, or take a shower. Here are some signs and symptoms that, if found, indicate that you should be seen by your healthcare provider.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
This type of cancer is usually found on sun-exposed areas of the skin like the scalp, forehead, face, nose, neck, and back. Slow-growing, basal cell carcinomas rarely cause pain in their earliest stages. They may bleed after a minor injury but then scab and heal. This can happen over and over for months or years with no visible growth. This makes it easy to mistake a tumor for a wound or sore.
In addition to the bleeding and healing just mentioned there are four other possible signs of a basal cell cancer.
- A reddish patch or irritated area that sometimes crusts over and may itch
- A shiny bump or nodule that is pearly or translucent, and often pink, red or white. It can also be tan, black or brown, especially in dark-haired people; easy to confuse with a mole
- A pink growth with a slightly elevated, rolled border and a crusted indentation in the center. Tiny blood vessels may appear on the surface as the growth enlarges
- A scar-like white, yellow or waxy area, often with poorly defined borders. The skin seems shiny and tight; sometimes, though less frequently, this can be a sign of an aggressive tumor
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Generally found on the ears, face and mouth, squamous cell cancer can be more aggressive than basal cell. Untreated, it may push through the skin layers to the lymphatic system, bloodstream and nerve routes, where it can cause pain and symptoms of serious illness.
Squamous cell cancer often starts as a precancerous lesion known as an actinic keratosis, a rough, flat, pink spot sometimes called a solar keratosis. When it becomes cancerous, the lesion appears raised above the normal skin surface and is firmer to the touch. Sometimes the spot shows only a slight change from normal skin. Other signs include:
- A wart-like growth that crusts and sometimes bleeds
- A persistent, scaly red patch that has irregular borders, which sometimes crust or bleed
- Open, bleeding and crusting sore that persists for weeks
- Elevated growth with a depression in the center that occasionally bleeds; can get bigger quite rapidly
Actinic Keratosis (Pre-cancer)
Many people have actinic keratosis (AK), also called solar keratosis, on their skin. This abnormality develops slowly. AK are usually small, about an eighth to a quarter of an inch in size. You may see a few at a time, and they can also disappear and later return.
Are they dangerous?
Yes. AK development shows that you've had enough sun to develop skin cancer. So it is called either a “precursor” of cancer or a “precancerous condition.”
What does an AK look like?
It is a scaly or crusty bump on the skin’s surface, and is usually dry and rough. An actinic keratosis is often noticed more by touch than sight. It may be the same color as your skin or it may be light, dark, tan, pink, red, or a combination of colors. It can be flat or raised and rough. It can itch or produce a prickling or tender sensation. This skin abnormality can become inflamed and be encircled with redness. Rarely, they will bleed.
Where do they show up?
Usually they show up on the parts of your body that have received the most lifetime sun exposure—for example, on the face, ears, scalp, neck, backs of hands, forearms, shoulders, and lips.
Some of the same treatments used for non-melanoma cancers are used for actinic keratosis to ensure that the AK does not develop into a cancerous lesion.