Skin cancer symptoms are often difficult to spot, as they can appear in nearly any shape, color, and size. However, some identifiable characteristics are associated with the most common forms of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Most of these appear as new or changing lesions which include growths, moles, spots, and/or open sores that do not heal within three weeks.
If you notice new skin spots with a troubling appearance, don’t wait to schedule an appointment with our St. Louis dermatology clinic. Otherwise, an annual skin screening will provide essential monitoring and evaluation from an experienced dermatologist.
Common Skin Cancer Symptoms
If you’re conducting a skin cancer self-check, it’s important to know what to look for. Many dermatologists recommend using the ABCDEs of skin cancer to determine whether a growth is suspicious. While used primarily for melanoma diagnosis, these characteristics can indicate a variety of skin cancers. This memory device is easy to remember for when you find a lesion that looks suspicious.
While conducting a skin cancer self-check, look for lesions that have any of the following characteristics.
- A: Most cancers will be asymmetrical, as differentiated from a common mole.
- B: Skin cancers typically have an uneven or blurred border, whereas benign growths have smooth, even borders.
- C: If a growth has multiple colors, there is reason to make an appointment. Benign moles usually have a single shade of brown, black, or tan.
- D: Growths that exceed ¼ inch in diameter, as well as those darker than others, are tell-tale signs of a melanoma.
- E: If a growth evolves, i.e. it changes size, shape, color, or elevation, or if it bleeds, itches, or crusts, it may be melanoma.
If you notice a growth with any of the above characteristics, make an appointment as soon as possible. This is the best way to ensure you get the treatment and care you need.
Some skin cancers don’t share these common characteristics. For example, amelanotic melanomas don’t have the same dark pigmentation, making them difficult to recognize. Even if you don’t notice a new growth, or if you aren’t sure about an existing mole, scheduling an annual skin screening can provide essential monitoring from an experienced dermatologist.
How to Perform a Skin Cancer Self-Check
Self-exams are a crucial piece of skin cancer diagnosis and prevention. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends examining your skin, from head to toe, every month. If skin cancer is caught early, patients typically have excellent responses to treatment. In performing regular self-checks, patients can keep tabs on their own skin and growths, noting any changes and bringing suspicious lesions to the attention of their doctors between in-office checks.
Performing a skin cancer self-check is simple, but you’ll need to set aside some time to do it. The easiest method of performing a check is to start with your face and move down. Use a mirror to examine your nose, lips, ears, and mouth for discoloration or growths. From there, thoroughly inspect your scalp, using a comb and mirror to view hard-to-reach sections. You might also ask a friend or partner to help.
Noncancerous Spot Differential Diagnoses
Some cases of skin cancer can be difficult to distinguish from other dermatology conditions. Some spots may look cancerous when, in fact, they are benign. Below, we’ve described some lesions that can mimic skin cancer, and why it’s best to get a diagnosis from an experienced dermatologist.
- Precancer Actinic Keratosis – This is the most common precancer that forms on the skin. It is caused by chronic exposure to ultraviolet rays from either the sun or indoor tanning. Actinic keratosis can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. It appears as a red or flaky patch of skin.
- Moles and Birthmarks – These benign, pigmented spots can range in color, size, and elevation. While most are noncancerous, newer growths are more likely to become cancerous. If you have a large number of moles or birthmarks, you are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. Be sure to conduct regular self-checks and visit the dermatologist at least once each year.
- Warts – Similar to moles and birthmarks, warts are benign growths that can appear anywhere on the skin. Rather than being caused by cancer cells, they are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Some forms of HPV can cause some forms of cancer, but they do not cause carcinomas or melanomas.
- Acne – While it may sound silly, mistaking acne for cancer is more common than one might think. Some forms of acne, especially cystic acne, can have similar characteristics to some forms of cancer. If you are experiencing chronic acne that does not respond to treatment, visit the dermatologist for a consultation.
- Eczema – Eczema is a skin condition that results in chronic, itchy rashes. It can bear a resemblance to some types of carcinomas.
- Psoriasis and Rosacea – These autoimmune diseases can sometimes resemble skin cancer. They cause large patches of red, scaly, flaky skin, which can look like basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. If you notice a patch of skin with these characteristics and do not have a psoriasis or rosacea diagnosis, make an appointment with the dermatologist.
When to See a Doctor for Skin Cancer Symptoms
If you notice skin cancer symptoms during a monthly self-check, make an appointment for a skin cancer screening as soon as possible. Our dermatology office is equipped to perform a skin cancer biopsy and diagnose your lesion as either cancerous or benign. This procedure is fast and usually painless, and it will provide you with the information necessary to receive appropriate treatment. If you’re not confident in your ability to conduct a self-check, we recommend scheduling an appointment with us. One of our medical practitioners can walk you through the steps necessary to perform self-exams in the future.