You know that skin cancer should be taken seriously. And you know that early detection is key to successful treatment of skin cancer. But what should you look for? How do you know if that spot on your nose is just a freckle or something more threatening? Find out the early signs of skin cancer so you can perform a more helpful skin cancer check on yourself and know when you need to make an appointment with the dermatologist.
Skin cancer is usually easy to detect because it appears in visible areas on the surface of your body. Skin cancer is most frequently caused by your skin’s exposure to UV rays from the sun, making areas that receive a lot of sun exposure the most common locations for skin cancer to develop. You should be most vigilant as you look for skin cancer on your face, ears, scalp, neck, chest, arms, hands, legs if you’re a woman, and torso if you’re a man. As skin cancer develops, it can take on many shapes, colors, and textures. Before getting into more specifics on the appearance of early stage skin cancers, be alert to four easy warning signs of skin cancer identified by The American Academy of Dermatology: a spot that is different from other areas of your skin, a spot that changes over time, an area that continues to itch, or a place that regularly bleeds. If you see any of these basic indications, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist. Your dermatologist will be able to ascertain if the spot in question is precancerous, malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). Want to get some more specific warning signs to be on the lookout for? Keep reading.
Many precancerous spots are known as actinic keratosis (AK). When left untreated, an AK may advance to a squamous cell carcinoma. If you find an actinic keratosis and have it removed, you can stop cancer before it even starts. It is easier to feel an actinic keratosis than to see it. Your skin may feel dry and rough or raw, sensitive and painful. The spot could also be itchy or have a burning sensation. If you are able to see the AK, you might see a red, inflamed area, or a lesion that persistently crusts or bleeds. The AK could also appear as a thick or scaly patch of skin or many red bumps clustered in one area.
The two most common skin cancers are squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and basal cell carcinoma (BCC). They both tend to appear on areas of your body that experience a lot of sun exposure. These are the warning signs for a BCC: a pearly or waxy bump (might be dark in people with darker skin tones); flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion; bleeding, oozing or scabbing sore won’t go away or heals and returns; a small, pink bump with a crusted indentation in the middle; a scar-like area that is shiny, white or yellow or waxy and taut. If you have an SCC, you might see these on your skin: a firm, red nodule; a raised area with an indentation in the middle; a spot that regularly bleeds or crusts and won’t heal (this might be a wart-like spot). SCCs are often surrounded by sun damaged skin that is wrinkled, has loss of elasticity, or has pigment changes.
Melanoma is less common than SCC, but is far more dangerous, because of its tendency to spread to other organs when not treated early enough. When caught early, like other common skin cancers, it is usually easily and successfully treated -- the 5-year survival rate for early-detection of melanoma is 98%. Melanomas can look a variety of different ways and sometimes appear on a new or existing mole or on otherwise healthy skin. There are some common signs that you can look for when checking your skin. Women should especially look on their legs, while men should look on their torsos -- these are common areas for melanoma to develop. But be diligent to check your whole body, as melanomas can grow anywhere on your body, regardless of your skin tone. Use the ABCDEs of melanoma to help you identify possible cancerous spots. A for asymmetrical -- the two halves of the spot don’t match. B for border -- the edges of the spot aren’t even, but are scalloped or notched. C for color -- a multi-colored mole or one that develops blue, white or red colors (as opposed to the regular brown or black of a normal mole). D for diameter -- a mole that is bigger than a pencil eraser in diameter is a danger sign. E for evolving -- a change of a mole in shape, size, color, or height OR the start of bleeding or itching should alert you to a possible melanoma. You can also use the Ugly Duckling method of checking your moles. If a mole looks different from its neighbors in size or color, it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a dermatologist.
Contact Vanguard Dermatology located in the greater New York City area. The board-certified dermatologists at Vanguard can offer expert care in skin cancer screenings, surgical removal of precancerous and cancerous spots, and other skin cancer treatment and prevention plans.