Medically reviewed by Susan Bard, MD
Skin cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the skin cells. Skin cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis) and grow at an out-of-control rate. This is usually caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.
There are different types of skin cancer, and each type presents differently. The main types include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and Merkel cell cancer. Symptoms may include a sore that does not heal, a mole that is growing, or other skin changes.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. It’s estimated that about 5 million people in the United States are treated for skin cancer each year. Fortunately, most cases of skin cancer are treatable and even curable. The best way to catch skin cancer in an early stage is to recognize the signs.
Basal Cell Carcinoma Symptoms
Basal cell carcinoma develops in the skin’s basal cells and is the most common type of skin cancer in the United States. Basal cell carcinoma often appears as an open sore that does not heal over time. It most commonly develops on areas of the body that receive the most sunlight, including the scalp, face, neck, and shoulders.
Common signs of basal cell carcinoma include:
New skin growth: The first sign of basal cell carcinoma may be a wart-like growth with raised edges and a dipped center. It is usually a roundish shape and has a pearly shine to it.
Open sore: When an open sore does not heal and feels very sensitive, it could be basal cell carcinoma. The sore may bleed, ooze, and then crust over.
Patch of scaly skin: Basal cell carcinoma may present as a patch of scaly skin that does not heal. It may appear red, dry, and irritated. It may also be slightly raised with poorly-defined borders.
Scar-like sore: Basal cell carcinoma sometimes appears as a flat scar that looks pale yellow and has a waxy texture.
Color: Basal cell carcinoma may appear red, pink, or brown in fair-skinned people and brown in people of color.
Sensitivity: Most cases of basal cell carcinoma are painless. However, sometimes the skin growth can feel sensitive, numb, or itchy.
Rarely, basal cell carcinoma can present like a dark mole. This is usually how melanoma appears. If you notice a mole that is raised from the skin, has poorly defined borders, or is changing in appearance, get it checked out right away.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma Symptoms
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer in the United States. It develops in the squamous cells of the skin. Like basal cell carcinoma, this type of skin cancer is very treatable and can be cured when caught early.
Common signs of squamous cell carcinoma include:
Open sore: Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as an open sore that does not heal. You may notice that it tends to bleed and ooze, then crust over.
Red, scaly patches: Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as a thick, rough patch of skin. Over time it becomes red and scaly.
Elevated growth: As squamous cell carcinoma becomes more advanced, it starts to look like it is raised off of the skin. The edges may be raised while the center is sunken.
Wart-like growth: Once a squamous cell carcinoma lesion develops raised edges, it can start to look like a wart. Advanced cases may look like a wart with a small horn-shaped growth coming out of it.
Color: The color of a squamous cell carcinoma lesion varies by skin color. The growth may be red, pink, brown, black, white, or yellow.
Numbness: Most cases of squamous cell carcinoma are not painful but your lesion may feel numb or like “pins and needles.” Itching is also possible.
Melanoma is considered a more serious type of skin cancer because it spreads more quickly than other types. It develops in the melanocytes, the cells that produce skin color (melanin).
Melanoma usually appears as a mole that is brown or black. Normal moles are usually brown, tan, or black in color. They are often round and develop in childhood or young adulthood. Normal moles do not change their color or appearance once they form.
Melanoma usually presents as a mole changing in color, size, or shape. It often appears different than any other moles or spots you have. The best way to detect melanoma is to use the ABCDE rule. This guideline is used by dermatologists (medical doctors specializing in diagnosing and treating skin disorders) to diagnose melanoma.
Common signs of melanoma include:
Asymmetry: The mole or growth has two halves that do not match each other.
Border: The edges of the mole look jagged or undefined.
Color: The mole has multiple colors or shades.
Diameter: The mole is larger than 6 millimeters. if you notice a mole or growth that is larger than the size of a pencil eraser, see your healthcare provider.
Evolving: The mole is new or changing in appearance.
Not all cases of melanoma present as a mole. Certain types may look like an open sore, skin discoloration, swelling, or scaly skin over a mole. It’s best to discuss any skin changes you notice with your dermatologist.
Merkel Cell Cancer Symptoms
Merkel cell cancer is a rare, aggressive form of skin cancer. It develops in the Merkel cells that are located in the skin’s outermost layer. Merkel cell cancer usually presents as a firm, painless bump or sore on the skin. The growth is often pink, red, or purple in color.
Merkel cell cancer grows and spreads quickly. See your dermatologist if you notice any new skin growths or bumps, especially if they are changing quickly.
Symptoms in Children
Skin cancer is very rare in children and teens. Basal cell carcinoma in children may appear as a raised lump on the skin or an open sore. Squamous cell carcinoma may look like a red sore that is scaly or crusted over.
Symptoms in Men/Women
Skin cancer is more common in people who were assigned male at birth. This is especially true for melanoma. Research shows that men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from melanoma than women.
This may be due to a difference in sunscreen use, as well as a difference in the makeup of the skin. Male skin tends to be thicker with less fat beneath it. Because of this difference, men’s skin may be more damaged by UV rays than women’s.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Skin cancer is common, and it is important to see your healthcare provider for regular skin checks. Always see your dermatologist when you notice a new skin growth or sore that is changing or does not heal. Most dermatologists recommend coming in for a skin check annually.
Seeing your dermatologist regularly is especially important if you have specific risk factors for skin cancer. These may include:
Fair skin or eye color
Age over 50 years old
Sex assigned male at birth
History of sunburns
Tanning bed use
History of skin cancer
History of chronic skin infections
A Quick Review
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Most cases of skin cancer are curable when diagnosed in the early stages. It is important to know the common signs of skin cancer in order to recognize it right away.
Signs of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma include an open sore that does not heal or wart-like growth. Signs of melanoma include a mole that is changing in appearance. See your dermatologist for a skin check annually or sooner if you notice any new skin changes.
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