Can You Recognize An Early Skin Cancer?
It is important to be able to recognize the signs of skin cancer in its early stages before a lesion extends and becomes harder to treat. If you do a regular, monthly exam of your skin, you can improve your ability to identify the early signs of the three most common skin cancers: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma.
Use a small magnifying glass to see small lesions better, or a hand-held mirror for areas that are hard to view such as the back of your arms or legs. Check for new spots or changes in your existing skin marks, moles, or bumps, and pay attention to non-healing sores. Be sure to ask your doctor to examine any new or changing lesions you find.
Basal Cell Cancer: A Small Reddish Patch
Basal cell cancer (BCC) is the most common skin cancer and the most common of all cancers in the United States, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Basal cell cancer can start as small, flat or slightly raised reddish, pinkish, or pale patch.
Patches like this one on the face may or may not be itchy and you might mistake it for other benign skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. Have your doctor check any new or changing lesions that look like these to make the correct diagnosis.
A Basal Cell Cancer Bump
Some early basal cell cancer lesions are small, whitish, or pearly-white raised bumps with a regular border. Other BCC bumps can be pinkish, reddish, tan, black, or brown and might be mistaken for a mole.
Eight out of ten skin cancers are basal cell cancers. They are most common on sun-exposed areas such as the face, neck, chest, arms, or legs.
Basal Cell Cancer: A Shallow Sore
A basal cell cancer can look like a reddish, shallow, open sore. These lesions, like this one on an ear, can bleed easily, crust over, then bleed again. It is common for these open sores to not heal.
Basal cell cancers begin in the basal cells, the deepest layer of cells in the epidermis (top layer) of the skin. They are slow growing and do not tend to spread outside the lesion to other areas of the body, therefore they are easier to cure.
Basal Cell Cancer: A Raised Border
This pinkish basal cell cancer has a slightly raised, rolled border surrounding a shallow depressed center. Basal cell cancers, such as this one, tend not to invade outside the primary lesion. However, a basal cell cancer can grow, scar, and disfigure a larger area of skin. If it does, it will need a more extensive surgical treatment.
Basal Cell Cancer: A Scar
A scarred area can be a sign of a basal cell cancer that has progressed deeper into the skin. Don't ignore these scars such as this whitish, pinkish one. See your doctor for a closer examination and possible biopsy of the area to confirm a diagnosis.
Squamous Cell Cancer: A Scaly Patch
Squamous cell cancers (SCC) can present as flat reddish or brownish, scaly, rough patches. SCC lesions tend to bleed easily and become crusted. Squamous cell cancers are less common than basal cell cancers, occurring in two out of ten skin cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
This cancer can occur all over the body, especially in sun-exposed areas, including the hands, arms, legs, face, nose, outer ears, lips, scalp, arms, hands, and legs. SCC can also occur in unexposed areas such as the genitals.
Squamous Cell Cancer: An Open Sore
This non-healing sore on the nose is an example of a squamous cell cancer. It can bleed easily and the surface of the sore can become crusted. Squamous cell cancers begin in the top or squamous cell layers of the epidermis and lesions can start in sun-damaged skin as well as in scars and burned areas.
People with a lot of sun and tanning bed exposure are at the greatest risk for squamous cell cancer. Although you have a lower risk if you are dark-skinned, you can also get skin cancers. Of note, SCC is the most common skin cancer among people with darker skin color.
Squamous Cell Cancer: Sore With Raised Border
Open skin sores that have a raised border and a depressed center are signs of squamous cell cancers. These lesions tend to bleed easily and grow faster than other types of squamous cell cancer lesions. Persistent, non-healing sores might be an indication of a more advanced cancer.
Squamous cell cancers grow slowly and are curable if found at an early stage. However, they tend to spread easier than basal cell cancers to surrounding skin and other body parts.
Squamous Cell Cancer: A Crusted Raised Growth
Squamous cell cancers can appear as crusted, raised growths like this one on the lip. This lesion may have started as what looked like a benign lip sore or a wart-like growth. Like other types of SCC lesions, these growths can be persistent and non-healing and can sometimes bleed.
Melanoma: A Suspicious Flat Mole
Melanoma skin cancer is the least common of skin cancers but the most aggressive and deadly. Look for flat or raised moles and other spots that show the changes seen with melanomas. This mole illustrates some of the ABCDE features that should raise your suspicion of an early melanoma:
- A: Asymmetry - A melanoma is asymmetrical; if you divide this mole in half from top to bottom, the left half looks a little different from the right half.
- B: Border - Melanomas have irregular borders, unlike the smooth border of a benign mole; the border of this suspicious mole is slightly irregular.
- C: Color - Melanoma lesions usually have more than one color and some have multiple colors; in this suspicious mole there are dark brown and tan colors.
- D: Diameter - A melanoma lesion is usually larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser (1/4 inch or 6 millimeters).
The last feature of melanomas is E = Evolving - this means there is increasing asymmetry, irregular border, color variations, and diameter of a lesion. Keep a watch on moles or marks for any evolving changes.
A Benign Mole Compared to a Melanoma
Compare the features of this small benign mole to those of a melanoma. This mole is generally symmetric in all parts, the border is smooth, and the color is even. Note that melanomas can start in a mole such as this one.
Melanoma: A Complex Lesion
This melanoma is asymmetrical from left to right, the edges are irregular, and there are a variety of colors seen in melanomas, including black, brown, tan, pink, and white. Other melanomas can also have red or blue colors.
Melanomas develop from melanocytes which are present in the lower cell layers of the epidermis (top layer) of the skin. This skin cancer can grow quickly and spread to deeper skin layers, lymph nodes, and distant organs such as lungs and brain. Melanoma staging is based on this advancement of the primary lesion.
A Melanoma Among Benign Moles
Melanomas can occur on skin anywhere on the body, including commonly on the face and neck. When you do your regular self-examination on areas that have multiple spots, such as your face, look for moles or freckles that appear different from the others. Identify any that have the irregular and uneven features of a melanoma, or any new or changing moles among your collection of spots.
The American Cancer Society states melanoma is less common than basal and squamous cell cancers. It occurs in about one percent of Americans, tends to run in families, and the incidence increases with age. This skin cancer is more common in light-skinned people than those of African descent.
Melanoma Can Occur in the Eye
Melanoma cancers can occur in uncommon places you might not think of, such as the eye. Pay attention to dark spots or moles on the white of your eye such as this one. It could be a melanoma or advance into one.
The most common sites of melanoma for women are the legs and for men, the chest and back. Less common areas are the mouth, and the genital and anal areas of men and women. Darker-skinned people are more likely to have melanomas in unusual places such as the palms, the heel and the soles of the feet, and the skin under the finger nails.
Finding Skin Cancer Early
Skin cancers are easier to treat if found early. It is a good idea to get a full annual exam of your skin by your doctor, especially those areas of your skin that are hard for you to see, such as your back. Ask your doctor to examine any moles, spots, marks, or skin growths that you can't decide on or those that concern you.
Your doctor might decide that you can benefit from more expert examination by a dermatologist. The earlier you get a diagnosis the better the chance of a cure, especially with melanoma, the most dangerous of skin cancers.