Skin Cancer Symptoms

There are various types of symptoms that can be associated with each type of skin cancer. This article provides information on what symptoms are unique to each specific skin cancer.

Person with suspected skin cancer - mole on skin that is being examined - a photo by damiangretka

damiangretka | Shutterstock

Typically, any type of skin cancer will begin with some type of change to the skin. Since skin cancer primarily develops on areas of the body that are most exposed to the sun, it is more common for these changes to occur on the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms and hands.

Skin cancer can originate from a number of sources, such as an abnormally growing mole, discolored skin, ulcers and/or skin wounds over that have not healed properly. Skin cancer can also be detected by changes in existing moles, such as development of jagged edges and/or an enlargement of the lesion.

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is a scale-like or crusty lesion that can appear on various different areas of the body. It is a precancerous lesion that, if left untreated, can develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

Precancer lesions are often extremely small and hard to see with the naked eye; however, actinic keratosis lesions are often raised and feel like a small patch of sandpaper. People therefore often detect these lesions by touch rather than sight. As lesions develop, they typically turn red; however, they can also appear tan, pink or similar to your natural skin color.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas typically grow at a slow rate and are thus unlikely to spread to other areas of the body (metastasize), making them relatively easy to treat. The following symptoms can be associated with basal cell carcinoma:

Open sores

Any type of open sore that has not healed after 7-10 days, particularly those that have oozing or crusted areas within and/or surrounding the sore, may indicate the presence of basal cell carcinoma2. In addition, any sore that has previously healed and has now reoccurred should be evaluated by a health professional.

Bumps

Pearly, waxy and/or shiny bumps that appear on the skin can be indicative of basal cell carcinoma. For individuals with lighter skin tones, this bump can appear pink, red or white in color; whereas individuals with darker skin tones will instead have bumps that appear tan, black or brown.

Red Patches

Any red patch on the skin that is unusually itchy, painful, crusty and/or bleeding.

Pink Growth

A pink growth that has raised edges and indented center may indicate basal cell carcinoma. Another key feature of this type of symptom may include the presence of abnormal blood vessels that spread outside of the growth, causing the skin abnormality to resemble a spiked wheel.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

It is more common to find squamous cell carcinomas on areas of the skin that are commonly exposed to the sun. While this is true, squamous cell carcinoma can appear at any location on the skin. If left untreated, this type of skin cancer can grow larger and, in rare cases, spread to other parts of the body.

Some of the most common symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma include:

Red patches

Red patches that arise on the skin that may be indicative of squamous cell carcinoma appear scale-like, crusty and/or bleed easily.

Open Sores

Similar to what is seen with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma symptoms can involve any type of open sore that has not healed after 7-10 days, particularly those that have oozing or crusted areas within and/or surrounding the sore, may indicate the presence of basal cell carcinoma. Similarly, any sore that has previously healed and has now reoccurred should be evaluated by a health professional.

Skin Growths

Squamous cell carcinoma growths can appear raised or in the form of lumps. These growths may have an indented center that bleeds, as well as cause pain when touched. In addition, any growth that resembles a growth and becomes crusty and/or bleeds easily may also be cancerous.

Symptoms associated with both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.

Figure 1. Symptoms associated with both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.

Malignant Melanoma

A melanoma can develop at any location on the body; however, it is most common to find this type of skin cancer on the face or trunk in men, as well as the lower legs of women. Although melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, it is the most serious type. The first sign of a melanoma is typically a sudden or gradual change in the shape, color, size or consistency of feel of an existing mole.

To determine whether a mole or freckle is a malignant melanoma, the mnemonic “ABCDE” is a useful tool:

Asymmetry – One half of the mole does not resemble the other half

Border – Since the border of a healthy mole should appear relatively smooth and even, a cancerous mole’s border may appear irregular. Therefore, irregular border characteristics of a mole can appear jagged, notched or blurred. In melanomas, the pigment from the mole may also spread to the surrounding non-pigmented skin.

Color– A healthy mole should be uniform in its color of black or brown. A mole that exhibits an uneven color or a variegated pattern of colors, such as varying shades of black, brown, and rust, along with areas of gray, red, pink, blue or white patches on the mole, may be cancerous.

Diameter – Any change in the diameter of a mole, particularly an increase in size that is larger than 6 millimeters or about 1/4 inch (roughly the size of a pea), may be cancerous.

Evolving – A mole that transforms into a melanoma will typically experience various changes over several weeks or months. For example, any change in the texture of a mole, such as one that has become hard or lumpy, may be cancerous.

If the surface of a mole appears to ooze or bleed, as well as cause an increase in pain, itching or irritation to the affected person, may also indicate a melanoma. A melanoma may also cause the mole to appear scraped or broken as a result of a breakdown of the skin that overlies it.

Symptoms of a malignant melanoma.

Figure 2. Symptoms of a malignant melanoma.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine, which are two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are currently used in anticancer therapy.

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