Most cancers have some pretty obvious signs; lumps and bumps, tenderness, pain or sickness. But when it comes to skin cancer symptoms, they aren’t always as plain to see. Skin cancer is slow growing and often free of glaring warning signs. That can make early detection tricky.
But don’t worry because there are a few things that you can keep an eye out for when it comes to skin cancer. These indicators let you know if a trip to the doctor might be a good idea.
In no way do these signs and symptoms automatically mean cancer – but it’s always good to check things out if you have suspicions.
In addition to the information on this page, you should get the SkinVision app here as a supportive tool, to check the spots you worry about and receive an instant risk indication.
Melanoma vs. Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer
Before we get started, it’s important to note that there is a distinction between melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. While melanoma is the most widely known and aggressive form of skin cancer, it’s actually the rarest type. Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, are the most common forms of skin cancer. Melanoma begins in melanocytes cells in the deepest layer of skin, also known as the hypodermic or subcutaneous tissue, while non-melanoma cancers are found in the upper and middle layers of skin, called the epidermis and dermis, respectively.
Melanoma is considered the most dangerous form of skin cancer as it typically will spread to other areas of the body, including organs. Non-melanoma skin cancers are generally considered less dangerous as they are less likely to spread and can usually be treated with a simple surgery. Both types of cancer can occur anywhere on the body but non-melanoma skin cancers are more likely to occur on areas of the body that are regularly exposed to the sun as opposed to more covered areas like inside your mouth.
How to tell the difference: what’s normal?
Now that we know the different types, how can we tell them apart on our skin? Below we’ll outline the main signs to look for in each type of skin cancer, but the general rule of thumb for detection follows the same principle: understand what’s normal for your skin.
Knowing what is normal can help you see what isn’t. Paying attention to all of the spots, moles and lesions on your body gives you a control to compare to when you think something may be changing.
Melanoma signs and symptoms
Melanoma appears on the skin as a new spot or growth or a change in an already existing mole.
A normal mole will be even in color, quite small and will have appeared during the early part of your life. Most importantly, a normal mole will arrive and stay – exactly the same. It won’t change and it won’t evolve. That is what really makes it normal.
Know your ABCDEs
Dermatologists classify melanoma using the ABCDE method. This method shows you which signs to look out for when detecting melanoma.
The Melanoma Research Foundation provides a handy overview of the method you can reference when performing skin checks:
A – Asymmetrical Shape
Melanoma lesions are often irregular, or not symmetrical, in shape. Benign moles are usually symmetrical.
B – Border
Typically, non-cancerous moles have smooth, even borders. Melanoma lesions usually have irregular borders that are difficult to define.
C – Color
The presence of more than one color (blue, black, brown, tan, etc.) or the uneven distribution of color can sometimes be a warning sign of melanoma. Benign moles are usually a single shade of brown or tan.
D – Diameter
Melanoma lesions are often greater than 6 millimetres in diameter (approximately the size of a pencil eraser).
E – Evolution
The evolution of your mole(s) has become the most important factor to consider when it comes to diagnosing a melanoma. Knowing what is normal for YOU could save your life. If a mole has gone through recent changes in color and/or size, bring it to the attention of a dermatologist immediately.
If you notice one or more of these symptoms, contact a dermatologist immediately.
Something just looks a little odd
Your skin is always changing – in fact, your skin replaces itself all the time. So if you see something on your skin that doesn’t go away over the course of a month or so that means it sits in the lower layers of skin. These weird skin abnormalities should be checked out – they could be melanoma symptoms.
It is even better if you can keep track of the size and shape of your moles so that you will be able to show your doctor a timeline to help with diagnosis. Our skin cancer app is ideal for this.
Your mole is acting strange
We all have moles on our skin, and in almost all cases, our moles are a normal reaction to sun exposure and are not dangerous. But if your mole is taking on some strange characteristics, the time has come for a second opinion. To recap, see your doctor if your mole:
• develops a crust or a scab
• sometimes bleeds
• is itchy
• feels tender
• is getting bigger or swelling
• is strangely shaped (ie. not round)
• has borders that are irregular
• includes lots of different colors or shades
• is bigger than the size of a pencil eraser in diameter
• has appeared recently (ie. when you are an adult)
Non-melanoma skin cancer signs and symptoms
While melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, it is still important to pay attention to non-melanoma skin cancers and understand the forms they can take.
According to the UK National Health Service; “The main symptom of non-melanoma skin cancer is the appearance of a lump or discolored patch on the skin that doesn’t heal.” The two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Find out how to identify these types below.
Basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms
Basal cell carcinoma presents itself in several forms. While it rarely spreads to other areas of the body or vital organs, it can cause disfigurement if left untreated.
It most often appears as:
• a hard pearly, waxy looking lump with visible blood cells
• a red and scaly, irritated patch that can grow quite large on the chest or back
• an open sore that bleeds or becomes crusty
• a white, scar-like lesion (this form is rarer)
• a pink growth with a slight indentation in the center
If you notice any of the above symptoms, see a doctor so they can examine it more thoroughly.
Squamous cell carcinoma signs and symptoms
Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma is usually caused by repeat sun-exposure over time. This is a slow-developing skin cancer that can spread to other areas of the skin, although it’s still considered uncommon to spread widely.
Squamous cell carcinoma normally takes the form of:
• wart-like bumps that often have crusted surfaces
• rough scaly patches that may bleed
• an open sore that bleeds or develops a crust
• red, dome-like nodules
Bowen’s disease, also known as “squamous cell carcinoma in situ” is an early form of squamous cell carcinoma. It usually appears as a red, itchy scaly patch that can often be confused for psoriasis or eczema. It is easily treated, but if left undiagnosed can pose a risk.
Other non-melanoma skin cancer symptoms
Less frequently occurring non-melanoma skin cancers include keratoacanthomas, Merkel cell carcinoma, cutaneous lymphomas, Kaposi sarcoma, skin adnexal tumors and sarcomas. These rare forms of cancer are treated differently than other forms of skin cancer and symptoms vary depending on the cell where the cancer began. Many of these skin cancer symptoms and methods of detection will overlap with the other forms of skin cancer discussed above, only a doctor will be able to give you a firm diagnosis.
Bottom line – is your skin changing?
Being aware of your skin is probably the single most important thing you can do when it comes to detecting skin cancer symptoms early. So be sure to look out for changes in your moles, things popping up or growing on your skin or any change in sensation that might indicate a problem. If you notice any of the above symptoms of skin cancer that persist for four weeks, visit your doctor. There’s a good chance it is nothing – but why put it off?