A Guide to Skin Cancer Symptoms and Skin Cancer Types
The most common sign of skin cancer is a change in your skin. This may be:
- a new growth
- a change in an existing growth
- a sore that will not heal
- a characteristic described in the ABCDEs of melanoma
The ABCDEs of melanoma can help you detect skin cancer before it spreads. It includes five telltale signs doctors use to diagnose melanoma:
- A = Asymmetry: The two halves of a spot do not match.
- B = Border: The edges appear blurred, scalloped, irregular, or ragged.
- C = Color: The colors are varying shades that may include tan, brown, or black or areas of white, blue, or red.
- D = Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters, or roughly the size of a pea, although it can sometimes be smaller.
- E = Evolving: The spot appears to change in size, shape, or color.
Many types of skin cancer have some common signs and symptoms unique to the cancer type. The following sections discuss these types of skin cancer:
- basal cell carcinoma
- squamous cell carcinoma
- cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, including mycosis fungoides and Sézary syndrome
- dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- sebaceous carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma starts in the basal cells. These cells are below the squamous cells. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, affecting about 2 million people in the United States each year. It often develops in people with fair skin and darker skin.
Basal cell carcinoma typically occurs on sun-exposed areas but can appear anywhere there is skin. Symptoms can include:
- a flat, firm, pale, or yellow area, similar to a scar
- a raised, reddish patch, which may be itchy
- a small pearly bump, which may be pink, red, translucent, shiny, or have blue, brown, or black areas
- a pink growth with raised edges and a lower area in the center, which may have unusual blood vessels that spread out like spokes of a wheel
- an open sore, which may be crusty or ooze and does not heal, or it heals and then reopens
The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. It begins in the squamous cells. These are the thin, flat cells that form the top skin layer.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer in people with light skin, but it can also develop in people with darker skin. It is most often found in sun-exposed areas. Symptoms include:
- rough or scaly red patch, which may crust or bleed
- raised lump or growth, which is often tender and may have a lower area in the center
- open sore, which may be crusty or ooze and will not heal, or that heals and then returns
- wartlike growth
Melanoma begins in the melanocytes. These cells make melanin, which gives skin its pigment or color. Melanoma is often considered the more aggressive type of cancer because it can spread quickly to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body if not caught early. Symptoms include:
- a nonhealing sore
- a dark mole or a black or very dark brown bump
- a mole that changes in color, shape, or size, or becomes crusty, tender, or itchy, or a border that becomes pink or swollen
- a pink patch, which is rare and known as amelanotic melanoma
- a spot that looks different from all of the other spots on your skin
- a spot has characteristics based on the ABCDE rule
Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma starts in the T lymphocytes (T cells) in the skin. These white blood cells are part of the immune system. They help prevent infections and other diseases. When T cells become malignant, they cause skin lesions.
Types of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma include:
- Mycosis fungoides: Often starts as a single or multiple brown or a red scaly patch of skin. It appears mostly on body areas not exposed to the sun, such as the upper leg and lower back.
- Sézary syndrome: This aggressive type of lymphoma presents on its own or can be an advanced form of mycosis fungoides. Symptoms include a large red itchy rash that may peel, swell, or cause thickening of skin or nails.
As it grows, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans can appear as multiple firm brown to purplish nodules that can be painful. These tend to occur on the trunk, extremities, head, and neck. This skin cancer has a high 10-year survival rate because it rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
The first sign of dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans is usually a small bump or a raised, reddish-brown to purplish patch that looks like a scar. In children, it can resemble a birthmark. Early on, there is usually no pain or tenderness at the site.
Other early signs of dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans include:
- an asymptomatic firm bump, such as a pimple-like growth or dermatofibroma
- a rough patch of skin
- a small change in the growth or patch as it slowly grows
As the cancer grows, symptoms may include a hard or rubbery lump resembling scar tissue. The skin may be tender, or it may crack or bleed.
Merkel cell carcinoma is another rare but aggressive skin cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma often shows up on the head or neck. It can appear pink, red, or purple and be painless.
It tends to grow quickly, so be sure to have any spots checked early by a dermatologist.
Sebaceous carcinoma is a rare but aggressive skin cancer that can spread. It typically starts on or around the eyes, eyelids, head, or neck. It can also appear anywhere sebaceous glands are present. Sebaceous glands in the skin open into a hair follicle and release sebum, an oily substance that protects the skin.
- a firm enlarging nodule or a pimple-like growth
- a bleeding or oozing fluid sore
- a sore that won’t heal, or heals and reappears
- a thickening of the eyelid (where your lid meets lash)
- a yellow or reddish crust on the eyelid, where the lid meets lash
As sebaceous carcinoma progresses, it can resemble pink eye. You can develop more growths that may ooze fluid, or your eyelashes may fall out. This may also affect your eyesight.
You can spot skin cancer early by regularly checking your skin. Examine your entire body once a month using a full-length and handheld mirror. You may need help from a family member for areas that are hard to see.
Learn more about skin self-exam steps and the ABCDEs of melanoma.
If you notice signs or symptoms of skin cancer, contact a doctor or dermatologist. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is most likely cured if found early.
Check with your primary care doctor to see whether they will perform a full-body skin check during your annual physical. Another option is to schedule yearly skin checks with a dermatologist.
Skin cancer symptoms are changes in your skin, usually in the form of a growth, spot, or patch. There are several types of skin cancer. The most common serious type is melanoma because it tends to spread to other parts of the body.
Examining your skin monthly for signs of skin cancer, including the ABCDEs of melanoma, can help increase your chances of spotting the disease early. The sooner skin cancer is found and treated, the better the outcome.