Skin Cancer Symptoms

Skin Cancer Symptoms: How To Know If It’s Skin Cancer

If a spot on your skin looks funny to you, there’s one cardinal rule: See a doctor ASAP.

This is because all three of the most common skin cancers — inclusive of the most dangerous, melanoma — there is 100 percent curability if diagnosed and treated early.

If left undiagnosed, however, a growth can grow bigger, deeper, and more unsightly. Some can disrupt normal functioning. The dangerous types can spread and become life-threatening.

For most persons, yearly screening by a doctor as well as regular self-exams are essential for early detection.

Many dermatologists recommend that people conduct skin self-exams about once a month (or more, if risk is particularly high).

This check, which should be done in a well-lighted room with a floor-length mirror and a hand mirror, should not take more than 10 minutes once you get the hang of it.

You’ll need to examine every perk of your skin, from your scalp (using a blow dryer to lift hair away if necessary) to the bottoms of your feet.

The more frequent you do these self-exams, the more familiar you will be with every freckle, mole, sore, lump, and blemish on your body and the better you will be at identifying potential trouble in the form of new markings or changes in the size, shape, or color of existing spots.

self-exam body map can help keep track of what’s normal for you and what’s not. (1)

Warning Signs of Basal Cell Cancer

These slow-growing skin cancers can easily be ignore unless they become big and begin to itch, bleed, or even hurt.

They tend to develop on parts of the body that get a lot of sun exposure, like the face, head, and neck, but they can appear anywhere.

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Some are flat and look a lot like normal skin. Others have more distinctive characteristics:

  • Flat, firm, pale, or yellow areas that resemble a scar
  • Raised, reddish patches of skin that might be itchy or irritated
  • Small bumps that might be pink, red, pearly translucent, or shiny, possibly with areas of blue, brown, or black
  • Pink growths with slightly raised edges and an indentation in the center; tiny blood vessels might run through it like the spokes of a wheel
  • Open sores, possibly with oozing or crusted areas, that don’t heal or that go through cycles of healing and bleeding

Basal cell cancer can be delicate and bleed easily. Some basal cell cancer presents itself as a sore or cut from shaving that won’t heal even after a week or so. (2)

Red Flags for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Like basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer tends to grow on parts of the body that get a lot of sun, such as the face, neck, ear, lip, and back of the hands.

It may also appear in the genital area, or in scars or skin sores anywhere on the body.

While squamous cell carcinoma can look like a flat area closely resembling healthy skin, there may be clearer signs of malignancy:

  • Rough or scaly red patches that may bleed or crust
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a depression in the center
  • Open sores, possibly with oozing or crusted areas, that don’t heal or that go through cycles of healing and bleeding
  • Growths that resemble warts (2)

Certain skin conditions may be precursors to squamous cell carcinoma, or even early forms of it.

  • Actinic keratosis can look like small, crusty, or scaly bumps or hornlike lesions that range in size from a teeny spot to lumps that are more than an inch wide. The base can be dark or light skin-colored, and there may be other colors as well, including tan, pink, and red.
  • A variant of actinic keratosis called actinic cheilitis affects the lower lip and may lead to chapping, cracks, and white discoloration.
  • Leukoplakia causes white patches on the tongue, gums, cheeks, and other mucous membranes of the mouth.
  • A persistent red-brown, scaly, eczema-like patch on sun-exposed areas of the skin, the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth, or the genitals could be a sign of Bowen’s disease. (3)
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Melanoma: Tricky to Spot

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the skin but is more likely to start on the chest and back in men and on the legs in women.

African-Americans are significantly less likely to get skin cancer than whites, but when they do develop melanoma, they are more likely to develop it on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, or underneath the nails.

Most melanoma cells still produce the pigment melanin, so they are often black or brown, but they can also be pink, tan, or white. (4)

The most basic way to spot a possible malignancy is to use the “ugly duckling” approach. Ask yourself whether any spot looks different than all the other ones around it — it might be larger and darker, for instance, or it might be a small red mole surrounded by bigger brown moles.

Is it Melanoma? Use the ABCDE Tool

The ABCDE rule is another way to assess whether a mole or other spot is worrisome:

  • A is for asymmetry. One half does not match the other.
  • B is for border. Edges are scalloped or notched.
  • C is for color. There are several different shades of brown, tan, or black, or colors like red, blue, or white.
  • D is for diameter. The spot is bigger than the eraser on a pencil, about 1/4 inch (although a malignant spot can be smaller if caught early).
  • E is for evolving. There are changes in size, color, shape, or elevation. (5)

Some melanomas don’t neatly fit into the ABCDE categories. Dangers signs include these additional signs:

  • A sore that does not heal
  • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into the skin around it
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the spot
  • Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • Change in the mole’s surface: oozing, bleeding, scaliness, or the appearance of a bump or lump. (6)

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