Skin cancer is a serious health concern, and helping patients diagnose and treat this condition is one of the most important services the board-certified dermatologists at U.S. Dermatology Partners provide. Because skin cancer can sometimes look like other types of benign skin lesions, it’s important to understand the common characteristics of both cancerous and benign skin lesions. According to Dr. John “Jay” Wofford of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Dallas, Plano, and McKinney, Texas, “Many patients wonder if skin cancer can look like a pimple, mole, or other benign spot on their skin. And the answer is sometimes yes. Skin cancer may appear very similar to common skin lesions, so being informed about what skin cancer looks like is very important.” Keep reading to learn more about how to identify common signs of skin cancer.
Could a Pimple Be Skin Cancer?
There are some situations where skin cancer may resemble a pimple. According to Dr. Wofford, “In the early stages, a lot of skin cancer looks like one tiny spot or bump on the skin, and patients ignore it, assuming it will clear up. These lesions may sometimes look similar to pimples, so it’s important to seek a professional opinion if you ever have a spot that looks like a pimple but isn’t clearing up or changes quickly.”
Basal cell carcinoma is the type of skin cancer that most commonly may look like a pimple. The visible parts of basal cell carcinoma lesions are often small, red bumps that may bleed or ooze if picked at. This may look similar to a pimple. However, after it’s “popped,” a skin cancer will return in the same spot.
Melanoma lesions most often look like dark spots on the skin, but they can also be reddish colored and appear similar to a pimple. However, unlike pimples, melanoma lesions often have multiple different colors within them and are irregularly shaped.
Can Skin Cancer Look Like a Mole?
Dr. Wofford says, “Another common question we get is about whether cancer can look like a mole, and the answer to this one is yes as well. The most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma, may initially look like a new mole or freckle or may develop within an existing dark spot. Anytime you notice changes in existing moles or freckles, you should have a dermatologist examine the lesion, especially if the spot grows or changes quickly.”
Each Type of Skin Cancer Looks a Little Different
According to Dr. Wofford, “Most people think of melanoma, which typically looks like a dark spot on the skin, but actually, there are many different types of skin cancer. Each type looks a little different, so in addition to understanding how to tell the difference between benign skin spots and cancerous lesions, it may be beneficial to learn a little more about the appearance of each type of skin cancer.”
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, and it often looks like a skin-colored bump that may appear smooth and shiny. Other basal cell carcinomas may appear as shiny, pink-colored patches on the skin. Basal cell carcinoma patches most often develop in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, and arms, but they can develop on other parts of the body.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is another common type of skin cancer. It typically looks like a firm, red bump that is often rough or scaly on the top. Over time, these lesions may enlarge to become scaly patches of skin that are easily damaged and may bleed frequently. Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma lesions most frequently develop on parts of the body exposed to sunlight.
Melanoma is actually a relatively rare form of skin cancer. However, although rare, it is the cause of the majority of skin cancer-related deaths because it is much more likely to metastasize (spread to other tissues and systems in the body). Melanoma most often looks like an irregular mole and can develop within existing moles, freckles, and age spots. However, melanoma most frequently develops as a new dark spot on the skin.
Normal vs. Abnormal Spots – What to Look For
While all types of skin cancer may resemble benign skin lesions, there are some warning signs that will help you determine whether or not you should be concerned. According to Dr. Wofford, “The key is to pay attention and check your skin consistently. Early detection is important, and the best way to ensure you catch skin cancer in the earliest stages is to perform regular skin exams at home. If you check your skin every month, you’ll be more likely to notice changes.”
During your skin health self-exams at home, you should carefully look at all areas of your skin, including the scalp, fingernail and toenail beds, and other difficult to see areas. As you examine your skin, take special note of any spots that have the following characteristics of skin cancer. These warning signs are what a dermatologist will typically refer to as the ABCDEs:
- A – Asymmetry – the lesion is different on one side compared with the other.
- B – Border – the border is not smooth. Instead, it may appear jagged, scalloped, or blurred.
- C – Color – colors of moles, pimples, and other benign skin lesions differ from person to person, but they should be consistent on your own skin. If you notice a spot that is a different color from other spots on your body or that is multi-colored, it may be a concern. Additionally, any spot that is black should be examined by a dermatologist.
- D – Diameter – the circumference of benign spots is typically smaller than a pencil eraser. Larger spots should be examined by your dermatologist.
- E – Evolution – if a spot is growing or changing in any way, it should be examined by your dermatologist.
What to do if You Notice Skin Irregularities
In addition to regular skin health self-exams at home, you should schedule an annual professional exam with your dermatologist. Even if you consistently visit your dermatologist each year for an annual skin examination, you shouldn’t wait for this annual visit to report any irregularities you notice during self-checks. Contact your dermatologist right away if you notice any warning signs of skin cancer. If you’re worried about skin cancer or have any other skin health concerns, you can get started working with the U.S. Dermatology Partners team by completing our online scheduling request form. We look forward to hearing from you.
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