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What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

November 28, 2018

Doctor examining skin cancer on back of woman

Many people ask their dermatologists this question and educating people about skin cancer self-exams is one of the most important things dermatologists can do. Dermatologists recommend you take the time to carefully evaluate your skin several times each year, looking for changes and irregularities that may be indicative of cancer. In order to effectively detect skin cancer during self-exams, you have to know what you’re looking for. Below, we review many of the common indicators that a new bump or change in skin color may be something to worry about.

Skin Cancer Symptoms for Identification

Not all skin cancers look alike. Later, we’ll review the specific appearance of the common forms of skin cancer. However, when you’re completing a self-exam, you should be aware of (and let your dermatologist know about) the following indicators:

  • New spots, bumps, or lumps
  • Changes to existing moles, freckles, or pigmentation
  • Any area that looks very different from the skin on the rest of the body
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Swelling, redness, heat, or inflammation around the border of a mole
  • Skin itching, pain, or sensitivity
  • Oozing or bleeding
  • Scaly-ness or thickening of the skin

When you’re examining these new developments, remember your ABCDEs and be especially mindful of the following:

Asymmetry

Part of a mole, birthmark, lump, bump, or patch of skin is shaped differently than the other part.

Border

Look at the edges of any irregular areas (even the ones you’re used to seeing like your moles and freckles). Healthy spots have smooth edges. Most problematic developments will have ragged or notched borders.

Color

No individual color indicates skin cancer. Pigmentation varies from person to person. However, spots that are not all the same color are a concern. Look for areas that have varied brown or black pigmentation, and you should be especially vigilant if there are patches of pink, red, white, or blue within the darker coloring.

Diameter

Use a pencil eraser to compare the size of unusual spots. Let a dermatologist know right away if there are any areas that are as large or larger than your pencil eraser.

Evolution

Changes to the size, shape, color, or texture of irregular areas may also be a concern.

Types of Skin Cancer

Some of the visual cues that accompany skin cancer are unique to one specific type of cancer. The warning signs, risk factors, and other information about the most common forms of skin cancer are listed below.

Precancerous Growths (Actinic Keratoses)

  • Dry, scaly spots or patches of skin
  • Typically occurs in fair-skinned people, but possible in individuals with darker skin tones
  • Usually occurs after the age of 40 due to the fact that they appear many years after skin has been exposed to sunlight
  • Typically occurs on the skin that receives the greatest amount of sun exposure – face, head, neck, hands, and forearms
  • Without treatment, actinic keratoses can progress to squamous cell carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

  • The most common form of skin cancer
  • Typically occurs in fair-skinned people, but possible in individuals with darker skin tones
  • Appears as flesh-colored bumps or patches of skin
  • May cause open sores that heal slowly or not at all
  • May appear pinkish or lighter for people with darker skin tones
  • Typically occurs due to years of frequent sun exposure or tanning
  • Typically occurs on the areas that receive the most sunlight – face, head, neck, hands, and forearms
  • May occur elsewhere on the body, including the chest, stomach, back, and legs
  • Without early diagnosis and treatment, BCCs can progress into surrounding tissues, nerves, and bones leading to serious damage or disfigurement

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

  • The second most common form of skin cancer
  • Typically occurs in fair-skinned people, but possible in individuals with darker skin tones
  • Appears as red, firm bumps, scaly patches, or sores that heal and reopen
  • Skin may form crusts, bleed, or ooze
  • There may be a dip or indentation in the center of raised areas
  • May create growths that are similar in appearance to warts
  • Typically occurs on the areas that receive the most sunlight – face, head, neck, hands, and forearms
  • May occur elsewhere on the body, including the chest, stomach, back, and legs
  • Without early diagnosis and treatment, SCCs can progress into surrounding tissues, nerves, and bones leading to serious damage or disfigurement
  • Without treatment, SCCs can spread to other areas of the body (metastasize)

Melanoma

  • The deadliest form of skin cancer
  • May develop within an existing mole, changing the appearance or texture of the existing mole
  • May appear as a new mole or dark spot on the skin
  • Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent serious health concerns and death
  • Because melanoma often develops within your existing moles or pigmented areas, it’s important to pay attention to changes in these areas

Where to Look for Skin Cancer

Skin cancer most often appears on areas of the body that receive sunlight regularly, but it can develop on any part of the body – from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head. For this reason, it’s important to carefully examine all parts of the body for warning signs of skin cancer.

Like other systemic diseases, early diagnosis is important to ensure effective treatment is possible for skin cancer. Visiting your dermatologist for an annual skin exam can help you catch problem spots early, when they are more easily treated. Additionally, you should perform self-exams between your annual visits.  Regular self-exams can mean the difference between simply finding and removing one small lesion and the necessity for advanced cancer therapies such as complex surgical procedures including tissue reconstruction.

How to Perform a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

Start your skin cancer self-exam right after a shower or bath. This ensures there aren’t any smudges or oily buildup on the skin. Then, stand in front of a full-length mirror in a room with plenty of lighting. You will also need a handheld mirror to see the back of your body. Once you’re ready, take the following steps:

  1. Look at any existing large moles, freckles, or birthmarks. Check for changes in shape, size, or coloring.
  2. Carefully look at and feel your scalp. The sun may shine down on your head regularly, but many people neglect to check this area for changes and problem areas.
  3. Carefully examine all facets of your face forehead, eyes, nose, lips, chin, and ears.
  4. Take a close look at your arms. Look at all sides carefully and don’t forget to check the armpits.
  5. Examine your neck. Use a mirror to clearly see the sides and back of your neck.
  6. Look over your abdomen – chest, stomach, shoulders and back. Again, use a mirror to take a closer look at the sides and back of your abdomen.
  7. Check your genital area and buttocks, using a mirror as necessary to see areas that aren’t readily visible in the mirror.
  8. Examine your thighs and calves, utilizing your mirror as necessary.
  9. Finally, sit down and carefully examine your feet (yes, even the bottoms of your feet and between your toes).

This process doesn’t need to take a long time. Once you’ve completed your first self-exam, you should begin to feel confident in recognizing changes right away. This makes future examinations faster and easier.

When to Contact a Dermatologist

Anytime you experience changes to your skin that may indicate a health concern, you should be working with a dermatologist. Many people don’t think of it this way, but the skin is an organ. Like any other organ, skin damage and disease can impact the entire body when left untreated. A dermatologist will partner with you to keep your skin and whole body healthy. If you’re looking for a dermatologist in your area, U.S. Dermatology Partners has you covered. Our team of local Dermatologists and Physician Assistants offer a wide range of dermatology services, resources, and products. To get started, complete our simple online request form. One of our local team members will be in touch with you shortly.

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