Skin cancer comes in many forms, and the signs and symptoms for each type of skin cancer can vary. Because skin cancers do not become painful until they have grown large, it is important to notice and report any unusual changes in the skin to a dermatologist.
Identifying basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer, can be identified in a number of ways. It appears most frequently on parts of the skin that receive the most sunlight, such as the face, neck, scalp, arms and hands, but can also appear on other parts of the body, such as the genitals. BCC can look like shiny, pearl-shaped, skin-colored bumps as well as sores, pimples or rashes that will not heal. This type of carcinoma can also bruise or bleed easily.
This form of skin cancer grows slowly, but rarely does it spread to other parts of the body. Individuals diagnosed with BCC should still seek treatment because it can destroy skin, tissue and bone.
If found early and treated, virtually all BCC can be cured.
Melanoma can be identified mostly through recognizing new spots or moles on the skin.
Identifying squamous cell carcinomas
Most squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) appear as lumps that have a rough or crusty surface, but they can also show up on the skin as slow-growing, reddish patches. Like BCC, SCC can appear on areas of the skin that receive a lot of sunlight, such as the face, ears, lips, nose and the backs of the hands, but also on other areas of the body.
In adults aged at least 40 years, approximately 40% to 60% of SCC cases begin as a precancerous actinic keratosis. Symptoms of this can include a pink, rough and dry patch or growth that feels irritated or painful, as well as whitish, scaly lips that feel dry.
Unlike BCC, this form of skin cancer can spread to other parts of the body. With early diagnosis and timely treatment, SCC is highly curable.
Melanoma can be identified mostly through recognizing new spots or moles on the skin. If a mole grows, changes shape, shifts in color, looks crusty or rough, or becomes painful, it may be a sign of melanoma. Additionally, sores that do not heal, changes or spread of pigment beyond a mole’s border, or a change in texture of a current spot or mole can also be signs of melanoma.
Melanoma cannot be diagnosed without a biopsy. Results of this will identify the stage of a patient’s melanoma.
- Stage 0: The melanoma is confined to the top layer of skin.
- Stage 1: The melanoma has grown thicker but is still confined to the skin.
- Stage 2. The melanoma has grown thicker and the skin covering the melanoma may have broken open or become ulcerated. At this stage, the cancer still has not spread.
- Stage 3: The melanoma has spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes or to nearby skin.
- Stage 4:The melanoma has spread to an internal organ, lymph nodes or skin farther from its original location.
If diagnosed early, in stage 0, melanoma has a nearly 100% cure rate using surgery.
Identifying less common forms of skin cancer
Less common forms of skin cancer include Merkel cell carcinoma, Kaposi sarcoma, sebaceous gland carcinomas and lymphomas of the skin. Merkel cell carcinoma is an aggressive form of cancer that can appear on the face, neck, arms and legs, usually at first as a hard patch or firm bump.
Kaposi sarcoma is more common in immunosuppressed individuals and often appears as red, brown or purple tumors on the skin or inside the mouth.
Sebaceous gland carcinoma is an aggressive type of skin cancer that forms in the oil glands anywhere on the body, but usually presents as painless, round, firmly rooted tumors on the eyelid.
Lymphomas of the skin can share symptoms with other skin problems and often are red or purple in color, appearing as raised bumps that resemble small to medium bumps or patches. Lymphomas on the skin can appear in multiple places on the body at one time, in several different ways.
Skin cancer in people of color
Individuals of African, Asian, Latino, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Native American descent, with darker skin, can also get skin cancer.
Even if an individual does not tend to get sunburn, they are still at risk for various forms of skin cancer.
Although people of color have a lower risk for skin cancers than white people, it is more commonly detected at a later stage.
The processes for early detection of skin cancers, for white people and people of color, are similar:
- Perform regular self-exams in front of a full-length mirror, a hand-held mirror or with a partner.
- Examine skin from head to toe, paying special attention to hard-to-see areas such as the top of the head and back.
- Look closely at areas that would otherwise receive very little sunlight such as the bottoms of the feet, toenails, lower legs, groin, buttocks, inside the mouth, palms and look for dark lines under the fingernails.
- Performing these actions monthly can allow an individual to monitor changes on their skin that could be cancerous.
Tell your physician if a suspicious spot is found.