What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

Medically Reviewed By Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
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The skin is the largest organ of the body and the most common site of cancer. The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are highly treatable when caught early. Melanoma is more aggressive, and it may spread and become hard to treat without early detection.

Read on to learn more about the types, symptoms, treatments, and prevention methods for skin cancer.

What are the different types of skin cancer?

A woman reading a book in the sun
Studio Firma/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Below are the three main types of skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer, with researchers estimating that it affects almost 20% of Americans. This highly treatable cancer starts in the epidermis, the top layer of skin, and typically grows very slowly.

Learn more about BCC.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

SCC is less common and more aggressive than BCC, but still highly treatable. Squamous cells are the most superficial cells within the epidermis. They express keratin, the structural protein that protects the skin’s surface.

Learn more about SCC.

Melanoma

Melanoma is less common than BCC and SCC, but it is the third leading cause of death among all cancers. Malignant melanoma starts in cells called melanocytes, which produce pigment in the skin. Malignant melanoma often begins as a mole that turns cancerous, and it may spread quickly.

Learn more about melanoma.

What are the causes of skin cancer?

While the specific cause is not always known, researchers state that excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is a primary factor in the development of skin cancer. UV rays damage the DNA in skin cells, which can result in mutations that increase the risk of forming cancer cells.

People with skin cancer risk factors should limit time in the sun and take precautions, such as using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding tanning beds.

Risk factors

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a number of factors can increase the risk of developing skin cancer, including:

  • excessive UV exposure
  • light skin that freckles or burns easily
  • naturally lighter hair
  • family or personal history of skin cancer
  • multiple or atypical moles
  • a history of severe sunburns
  • tanning bed use
  • being an organ transplant recipient

What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

Skin cancer pictures

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Basal cell carcinoma can look like a round growth with a dip in the center.

Photography by DermNet New Zealand

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Basal cell carcinoma can also look like a sore that does not heal.

The Pan African medical journal CC BY 4.0.

Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma can also look like an open sore with a raised border.

BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo

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Rough, scaly skin patches may also indicate squamous cell carcinoma.

Photography by DermNet New Zealand

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Melanoma lesions are often uneven in color.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Melanoma can also cause skin patches with irregular borders.

Carl Washington, M.D., Emory Univ. School of Medicine; Mona Saraiya, MD, MPH/CDC

Talk to your doctor or dermatologist if you notice any areas of concern on your skin, but pay special attention to these signs and symptoms of skin cancer.

BCC symptoms

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), BCC often appears on the head or neck. It can look like a raised, shiny, round growth.

BCC can also have other characteristics, including:

  • a pink or red growth with a dip in the center
  • a scaly patch or growth
  • a sore that does not heal or recurs
  • a spot that may look like a scar
  • a round, flesh-colored growth

SCC symptoms

According to the AAD, these are the possible symptoms of SCC:

  • an open sore with a raised border
  • a brown spot that resembles an age spot
  • a rough, reddish, scaly patch
  • a growth that resembles a wart
  • a sore forming over an old scar
  • a dome-shaped, firm growth
  • a small horn-shaped protrusion

SCC tends to develop on sun-damaged skin. However, it can also form inside the mouth as a sore. When SCC forms under a nail, it may look like a dark streak beneath the nail or it may cause the nail to disappear.

It can also develop on the genitals and inside the anus.

Melanoma symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people to check for potentially cancerous spots and moles by looking for the “ABCDEs” of melanoma:

  • A for asymmetrical: The spot or mole has an irregular shape or two halves that look very different.
  • B for border: The border of the spot or mole is jagged or irregular.
  • C for color: The spot or mole is uneven in color or has unusual coloring.
  • D for diameter: The spot or mole is larger than the size of a pea.
  • E for evolving: The appearance of the spot or mole has changed in recent weeks or months.

How do doctors diagnose skin cancer?

Your doctor will perform a visual exam of your skin to look for irregular or abnormal areas, then will likely order tests to confirm a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Tests for skin cancer

Procedures to diagnose and evaluate skin cancer may include:

  • Biopsy: Your doctor will remove an entire mole or small sample of tissue and send them to a lab for analysis to determine if any cells are cancerous. A biopsy is the only way to confirm a skin cancer diagnosis. For some skin cancers, removing the entire growth for testing is an effective treatment itself.
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: This involves removing a lymph node near the original site to test for cancer cells.
  • Imaging tests: MRI and CT scans can help doctors determine if the cancer has spread to neighboring or distant structures.

What are the treatments for skin cancer?

Possible treatments for skin cancer include:

  • curettage and electrodessication to scrape and burn off cancers
  • Mohs surgery, a targeted form of skin cancer surgery designed to remove as little healthy tissue as possible
  • topical medicated creams to treat superficial cancers
  • chemotherapy to remove cancer cells
  • cryotherapy to freeze off cancerous lesions
  • immunotherapy to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight cancer
  • laser therapy to remove lesions
  • photodynamic therapy, in which certain types of light activate topical chemicals that remove cancer cells
  • radiation therapy to remove cancer cells

Your doctor will recommend particular treatments based on the type, stage, and location of the cancer.

What is the outlook for people with skin cancer?

The outlook for people with skin cancer generally depends on the type, stage, and location of the cancer.

While BCC and SCC may grow more slowly and be more treatable, melanoma can spread quickly and be more lethal. For example, researchers estimate that the 5-year survival rate for people with stage 4 melanoma may be around 10 percent.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential to improving outcomes for people with skin cancer.

It is important to remember that each case — and person — is different and will respond to treatment differently. Talk with your doctor about your specific case and treatment plan.

Can you prevent skin cancer?

According to the AAD, wearing sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, even on cloudy days, is important for preventing skin damage that can lead to cancer.

In addition, the Skin Cancer Foundation states that you may be able to lower your risk of skin cancer by:

  • reapplying sunscreen every 2 hours
  • avoiding tanning beds and excessive sun exposure, particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • wearing protective clothing
  • conducting routine full-body skin checks on your own or with your doctor

Other frequently asked questions

Here are a few other common questions about skin cancer. Dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD, has reviewed the answers.

How quickly does skin cancer spread?

The rate of skin cancer spread depends on the type. Some skin cancers, like BCC, tend to spread slowly. On the other hand, melanoma can spread quickly and can be harder to treat.

What else can skin cancer look like?

Depending on the type, some skin cancer lesions can look very similar to pimples, scars, or sores. Contact your doctor about any new or changing spots on your skin.

What if skin cancer is left untreated?

Without treatment, skin cancer may spread to nearby or distant parts of the body and become harder to treat.

Summary

Skin cancers can be serious. Seek prompt medical care if you notice any suspicious changes in your skin. Catching cancer early and receiving prompt treatment is essential.

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Medical Reviewer: Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 23
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