What does skin cancer look like?

What does skin cancer look like?

Unless one has a friend or family member who has had a skin cancer, it is very common when a patient develops a skin cancer for the first time that it catches them off guard. You may have seen photos of skin cancer in a magazine or on the wall in a doctor’s office, but when it shows up on your own skin, it just doesn’t register as being a problem in many cases. So, for the most part, skin cancers have typically been present for months to years before getting attention. The problem lies in the fact that they grow so slowly (in most cases) that they don’t seem to be a problem.

If you know what you are looking for, detecting a skin cancer at the earliest possible stage will often result in a higher cure rate and a smaller scar. Here are some typical and atypical ways that skin cancer will show up on the skin…

The most common form of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). This is the type of cancer that grows locally, but can be very destructive if allowed to keep growing. I have seen patients lose entire noses, ears and eyes due to BCC. Sadly, this doesn’t need to happen, as long as these cancers are detected early. You should look for spontaneous bleeding on the washcloth/towel. Also, a pimple that doesn’t go away or comes and goes should raise a red flag. In general, BCC can look like a bump which may be pink, translucent, brown or skin colored. It may also be completely flat, but discolored. It may also look like a scar where no injury has ever occurred. If you notice any of these things, see your dermatologist.

The second most common form of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). SCC is also primarily a locally destructive cancer, but it does have a chance of spreading inside the body (metastasizing). This cancer may look like any of the descriptions above, but more commonly it starts as a rapidly growing bump that typically has scale or a central crust. SCC can also look like a common cyst which has started to change. Show any of these types of growths to your doctor.

Melanoma is the third main type of skin cancer which is often known as the most deadly of the common skin cancers. However, please be aware that when it is diagnosed early, melanoma is very often completely curable. The sad stories of melanoma deaths should remind everyone that the potential to spread inside the body is real. Sun protection to avoid developing this cancer and early detection in cases where it has already occurred are the best way to prevent a life-threatening problem with melanoma.,/p>

Most commonly, melanoma appears as an irregularly colored brown or black spot on the skin which can be flat or raised. Suspicious features include:

  • Asymmetry – if a line is drawn down the middle of a growth, one side does not look like the other
  • Border Irregularity – notching or irregular borders
  • Color Irregularity – a mixture of colors which can be dark or light shades of brown and black

Also, any mole or freckle that starts changing, even subtle changes, can be the only sign that skin cancer is developing. Don’t wait for itching or bleeding since these are usually late signs.

Last, don’t forget that these changes can occur on your eyelids, lips, nail beds and on mucous membranes (where the sun doesn’t shine). Any changing lesions should be checked by a dermatologist to determine whether a biopsy is required to determine if it is benign or cancerous. When in doubt, get it checked out!

More to come…

Michael Huether, M.D.


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