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Early Skin Cancer Signs and What It Looks Like

Skin cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer worldwide, affecting millions of people each year. Though it is highly treatable when detected early, knowledge is the best method of prevention. Understanding where it commonly develops, recognizing the symptoms, and knowing the stages can be crucial for early diagnosis and successful treatment.

Common Areas for Skin Cancer Formation

Skin cancer can develop anywhere on the body, but certain areas are more susceptible due to higher exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds.

Face and Neck

The face and neck are the most common areas for skin cancer development. This includes the scalp, ears, and lips, as these areas are frequently exposed to the sun. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) often appear here.

Arms and Hands

Another high-risk area is the arms and hands, particularly the forearms and backs of the hands. These parts are often exposed to the sun, especially in people who work outdoors or participate in outdoor activities.


The torso, including the chest and back, is a common site for melanoma in men. These areas can also be exposed to intense sunburns, which increases the risk of developing skin cancer.


In women, melanomas are more commonly found on the lower legs. This area often gets sun exposure during activities such as swimming or sunbathing.


While hair can provide some protection, the scalp can still develop skin cancer, particularly in balding individuals or those with thinning hair.

Common Symptoms and Signs of Skin Cancer

Recognizing the symptoms of skin cancer is vital for early detection and treatment. Here are some signs to look out for:

New Growths or Sores

Any new growths, lumps, or persistent sores that do not heal over time can be indicative of skin cancer. These may bleed or ooze and not respond to usual treatments.

Is that mole skin cancer?

Changes in Existing Moles

Watch for any changes in size, shape, or color of existing moles. The ABCDE rule is a helpful guide: Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color variations, Diameter over 6mm, and Evolving shape or size.

Itching or Pain

Skin cancer may cause persistent itching, tenderness, or pain in a particular spot. While not always present, these symptoms should not be ignored.

Rough or Scaly Patches

Areas of skin that become rough, scaly, or crusted could be indicative of SCC. These patches may feel different from the surrounding skin.

Dark Streaks Under Nails

Melanoma can sometimes appear as dark streaks under the fingernails or toenails. These streaks should be examined by a healthcare professional.

What Skin Cancer Looks Like

Understanding what skin cancer looks like can aid in early detection. Here’s a brief overview of the appearance of different types of skin cancer:

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

BCC often appears as pearly or waxy bumps, flat flesh-colored or brown lesions, or sores that bleed, scab over, and then return. It commonly appears on sun-exposed areas.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC can manifest as firm red nodules, flat lesions with a scaly crust, or new sores on sun-exposed areas. These lesions may become raised or ulcerated.


Melanoma typically appears as a large brownish spot with darker speckles, a mole that changes in color, size, or feel, or a lesion with irregular borders and multiple colors. It can also appear as a small lesion with an unusual border.

stages of skin cancer melanoma

The Stages of Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are two of the most common types of skin cancer. While they typically do not spread as aggressively as melanoma, understanding their stages can help in determining the appropriate treatment and prognosis. Below are the stages of BCC and SCC with brief descriptions.

Stages of Basal Cell Carcinoma

BCC is the most common form of skin cancer and usually grows slowly. It is less likely to metastasize (spread) compared to other skin cancers. The staging system for BCC is generally less formalized than for other cancers but can be categorized as follows:

Stage 0: The cancer is confined to the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) and has not invaded deeper tissues.

Stage I: The tumor is 2 centimeters (cm) or smaller in size and has not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Stage II: The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites. The tumor is larger than 2 cm with one or more high-risk features.

Stage IIII: The tumor has spread into facial bones or invaded nearby lymph nodes but not distant sites. The size and other high-risk features can vary.

Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasized), such as other organs or distant lymph nodes.

Stages of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC tends to be more aggressive than BCC and has a higher likelihood of spreading to other parts of the body. The staging system for SCC is more detailed and follows the TNM (Tumor, Node, Metastasis) system:

Stage 0: The cancer is only in the epidermis and has not invaded deeper layers of skin.

Stage I: The tumor is 2 cm or smaller in size and the cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites. No high-risk features are present.

Stage II: The tumor is between 2-4 cm and can be of any size with one or more high-risk features. The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage III: The tumor is larger than 4 cm and has spread to nearby lymph nodes (measuring 3 cm or smaller) or has minor bone invasion. The cancer has not spread to throughout the body.

Stage IV: The cancer has spread throughout the body (metastasized), such as other organs or distant lymph nodes.

Stages of Melanoma

Melanoma is classified into different stages based on the severity and spread of the cancer. Here is a brief overview of each stage:

Stage 0: At this stage, melanoma is confined to the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, and has not spread deeper. It is highly treatable with surgical removal.

Stage I: Melanoma is still relatively small and confined to the skin, measuring up to 2mm thick. There may be no ulceration (Stage IA) or slight ulceration (Stage IB).

Stage II: This stage involves thicker tumors that may be ulcerated. Stage II melanomas are subdivided into IIA, IIB, and IIC based on tumor thickness and ulceration, but they have not spread to lymph nodes.

Stage III: Melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes or nearby skin (satellite tumors). Treatment becomes more complex and may involve surgery, radiation, and systemic therapies.

Stage IV: The most advanced stage, where melanoma has spread to distant lymph nodes, organs (such as the lungs or liver), or other parts of the skin. Treatment typically involves a combination of surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Detecting melanoma early is crucial for effective treatment and better outcomes. Melanoma can develop anywhere on the skin, including areas not typically exposed to the sun. Regular skin self-examinations and awareness of the signs and symptoms of melanoma are key. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to detect melanoma on the skin.

Skin cancer symptoms

The ABCDEs of Melanoma

The ABCDE rule is a helpful guide to recognize the common signs of melanoma:

A - Asymmetry

Description: One half of the mole or skin lesion does not match the other half in shape, size, or color.

Example: A mole that is uneven in shape or appears lopsided.

B - Border

Description: The edges of the mole or lesion are irregular, blurred, or ragged.

Example: A mole with edges that are notched or scalloped rather than smooth.

C - Color

Description: The color of the mole or lesion is not uniform and may include different shades of brown, black, tan, red, white, or blue.

Example: A mole with multiple colors or an unusual color combination.

D - Diameter

Description: The mole or lesion is larger than 6 millimeters in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser), though melanomas can sometimes be smaller.

Example: A mole that is larger than a pencil eraser or one that is growing in size.

E - Evolving

Description: Any change in the size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait of the mole or lesion, or the emergence of new symptoms such as bleeding, itching, or crusting.

Example: A mole that starts to grow, change color, or develop new symptoms over time.

Additional Warning Signs

In addition to the ABCDEs, there are other warning signs to watch for when performing skin checks:

1. Look for any new moles or lesions that appear and do not resemble other moles on your body.

2. Be aware of moles or lesions that become itchy, tender, or painful without any obvious cause.

3. Pay attention to moles that become scaly, ooze, bleed, or develop a crust.

4. Notice small new spots that develop around an existing mole or lesion.

5. Be alert for moles that develop unusual colors or multiple colors within the same lesion.

symptoms of skin cancer

Performing a Self-Examination

Regular self-examinations can help detect melanoma early. Here’s how to perform a thorough check.

1. Perform the examination in a well-lit room with a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror.

2. Examine your entire body, including less visible areas such as the scalp, between the toes, and under the nails.

3. Start at your head and work your way down, checking the front, back, and sides of your body. Use the hand-held mirror to check hard-to-see areas or ask a partner to help.

4. Keep a record of your moles and lesions, noting any changes over time. Taking photographs can be helpful for comparison.

When to See a Dermatologist

If you notice any suspicious changes or new growths during your self-examination, it’s important to consult a dermatologist promptly. Early detection and professional evaluation are key to effective treatment. Dermatologists can perform a skin biopsy to determine if a lesion is malignant and recommend appropriate treatment if necessary.

Understanding where skin cancer commonly develops, recognizing its symptoms, and knowing the stages of melanoma can significantly impact early detection and treatment success. Regular skin checks, both self-examinations and professional evaluations, are essential. Protecting your skin from excessive sun exposure by using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding tanning beds can also reduce your risk. If you notice any suspicious changes in your skin, consult a healthcare provider promptly. Early intervention can make a significant difference in outcomes, ensuring better health and peace of mind.

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