What do skin cancers look like? Some spots on the skin are nothing to worry about, but others can be deadly if not detected and treated early. When it comes to the successful treatment of skin cancer—particularly melanoma— early detection is critical. To give yourself the best chance of catching skin cancer in its early stages, you need to know what to look out for.
There is no definitive description of what skin cancer looks like, so becoming familiar with your own skin and regularly self-checking your body for signs of change is the best way to catch skin cancer early. Keep an eye on spots that look different to others on your body, spots that have changed in size, shape, colour or texture, and sores that itch, bleed, or don’t heal. If you notice any of these signs, see your doctor and seek their expert opinion.
Types of cancerous spots
There are three common types of skin cancers—basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. What do these skin cancers look like? They can all look quite different. Below are some examples of each kind for your reference:
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) accounts for about 70 per cent of all keratinocyte cancers (or non-melanoma skin cancer) diagnoses. These types of skin cancers grow slowly over months or years and having one BCC increases your risk of developing another.
BCC usually develops on sun-exposed areas, although they can appear anywhere on the body. You might first notice it as a pearly or shiny lump, or scaly area that is pale fleshy tone, pink or darker red in colour. This type of cancerous spot can become inflamed and ulcerate, and some seem to partially heal then flare up again.
See your doctor if you suspect you have a BCC.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) accounts for about 30 per cent of remaining keratinocyte cancer diagnoses. These skin cancers can grow very quickly over the course of weeks or months, and are more common as you get older. Although rare, they do have the ability to spread if not treated early, particularly if on the face.
SCC usually develops on sun-exposed areas, although they can appear anywhere on the body. You might first notice it as either a thickened red, scaly or crusted spot, or a rapidly-growing lump. You may notice this type of cancerous spot bleeds and becomes inflamed and is often tender to touch.
See your doctor if you suspect you have SCC.
Melanoma is not as common as BCC or SCC, but it is considered the most serious as it is more likely to spread if not caught early.
Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body, so it’s important to check those places not often exposed to the sun. You might first notice melanoma as a new spot or existing spot that has changed in colour, shape or size over several weeks or months. It can have either a flat or raised surface and may have an irregular border. Melanomas can also be more than one colour.
Despite being the least common type of skin cancer, melanoma causes the greatest number of skin cancer deaths and is the most common cancer diagnosed in young Australians aged 12-24 years.
See your doctor if you suspect you have a melanoma.
This is a fast-growing and aggressive form of melanoma that can spread quickly into the lower layer of the skin and so early detection is particularly critical.
Nodular melanoma appears as a round, raised lump (dome-shaped nodule) on the surface of the skin that is pink, red, brown or black and feels firm to touch. It may develop a crusty surface that bleeds easily.
Don’t delay in seeing your doctor if you suspect you have a nodular melanoma.
Other skin spots to watch
There are a number of other skin spots that should not be ignored. Although they are non-cancerous, they may act as an indicator of increased risk or warning signs for skin cancer and should be monitored for changes.
Moles are very common, normal growths on the skin. If you have many moles on your body, it may run in your family, or you may have developed them as a result of increased time spent in the sun, particularly during childhood.
Moles are either brown, black, or skin coloured. They most often have a defined oval shape.
Moles have a small risk of developing into melanoma, however individuals with large number of moles are at greater risk of developing melanoma. Observe moles carefully for any sign of change.
A dysplastic naevus is a type of mole with an irregular shape and uneven colour. It may be known as an atypical naevus or mole. People with many of these spots have a greater risk of developing melanoma. It is particularly important to look for changes in dysplastic naevus as a small number of them may develop into melanoma.
If you suspect you have multiple dysplastic naevi, see your doctor about determining a suitable surveillance plan.
Solar keratoses also known as sunspots or actinic keratoses, are flat, scaly spots that feel rough to the touch and are either skin coloured or red. They are most common in people over 40 and on skin that’s often exposed to the sun.
Sunspots are a warning sign that you’ve spent too much time in the sun unprotected and may indicate that you have a higher risk of developing skin cancer in the future. If left untreated, can develop into squamous cell carcinoma.
See your doctor if you suspect you have sunspots to determine a suitable surveillance plan.
A harmless spot with a discrete edge that looks like it sits on top of the skin or appear like a wart. Most people have at least one or two of these spots by the age of 60.
Seborrheic keratoses can vary in colour from pale brown to orange or black, and vary in size from a few millimetres to 20 milimetres.
Protecting your skin and your DNA from overexposure to UV radiation is the best way to reduce your skin cancer risk, as nearly all cases are caused by overexposure to UV, or spending ‘too much time in the sun’ unprotected. Damage from UV radiation adds up over time during our daily activities, often without us noticing which is why it is important to protect your skins DNA in five ways— slip, slop, slap, seek and slide—whenever you’re outside when the UV is 3 and above.
Learn more about how to check your skin for early signs of cancer, and follow Cancer Council SA over summer to learn more about UV radiation and skin cancer prevention.
Photos courtesy of Dr Gerry Considine and DermNet