A Guide to Skin Cancer Symptoms and Skin Cancer Types

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Skin cancer symptoms are usually visible. They can include a new spot or growth, a nonhealing lesion, or a patch that looks like a rash. This article explains the signs and symptoms of skin cancer and how to spot them. It also discusses types of skin cancer and how you can detect it early.

Doctor performing skin exam
Irina Efremova/Stocksy United

What are skin cancer symptoms?

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.

What are the types of skin cancer?

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
  • melanoma
  • cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, including mycosis fungoides and Sézary syndrome
  • dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans
  • Merkel cell carcinoma
  • sebaceous carcinoma

Basal cell 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

Squamous cell carcinoma

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

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

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.

Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans

Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans is a rare type of skin cancer. It starts in the lower layers of the skin, such as the dermis or subcutaneous fat. It tends to grow slowly and may go unnoticed.

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

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

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.  

Sebaceous carcinoma tends to be very aggressive, spreading to lymph nodes and distant organs. It often appears as a deep, yellowish lump that feels firm and painless. Other signs include:

  • 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.

How do you check your skin for skin cancer symptoms? 

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.

When should you see a doctor for skin cancer symptoms?

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.

Summary

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.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Gall, R., et al. (2022). Sebaceous gland carcinoma. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562223/
  3. Merkel cell skin cancer. (n.d.). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/merkel-cell-skin-cancer.html
  4. Skin cancer types and treatment. (2022). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types
  5. What are the symptoms of skin cancer? (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/symptoms.htm
  6. What is dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP)? (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common/dfsp
  7. What is Merkel cell carcinoma? (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common/merkel-cell
  8. What is sebaceous carcinoma? (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common/sebaceous
  9. What exactly is cutaneous T-cell lymphoma? (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common/ctcl
  10. What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma. (2022). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/find/at-risk/abcdes