What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
June 06, 2019

There’s no one answer to the question of what skin cancer looks like. But any lump, spot, sore, or other mark on your skin that is new or changing and doesn’t heal should be checked out.

Nearly all skin cancers aren’t serious if you catch them early, but that means it’s important to take action if you see something odd on your skin.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, usually caused from too many hours in the sun (without protection) or under man-made sunlight for tanning. You don’t need x-rays or blood tests to find any skin cancer — it will be visible to your eyes or in the mirror.

If you are at higher risk for skin cancer, you should check your skin regularly. If you have a personal or family history of skin cancer, be on the lookout. You should also give yourself skin check-ups if you have low immunity or spend many hours in the sun, perhaps for your work. The American Cancer Society provides instructions here. If you have a general idea of what skin cancer looks like — you can see photos —here — you can catch it early.


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What does skin cancer look like?

There are many kinds of skin cancer, and they each create different marks. They also need to be treated differently.

There are three main groups: basal cell skin carcinomas, squamous cell skin carcinomas, and melanomas.

The first two are by far the most common, and show up most often on the head and neck, areas exposed to the skin. They are unlikely to spread to other parts of the body and become life threatening, but they can grow and scar nearby tissues and organs or interrupt their functions. Some do spread and can even be fatal if not treated.

Basal cell skin carcinomas can appear in various ways. You might see:

  • A flat, firm, pale, or yellow area that resembles a scar
  • A raised reddish patch that may also itch
  • Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, with blue, brown, or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges, sunk in the center
  • Open sores that don’t heal, or that heal and return

Squamous cell skin carcinomas may appear as:

  • A rough or scaly red patch, sometimes with a crust or bleeding
  • Raised lumps, sometimes sunken in the center
  • Open sores that don’t heal, or that heal and return
  • Wart-like growths

Melanomas develop from melanocytes, the cells that give skin its color.

On men, melanomas are most likely to develop on the chest and back. On women, they tend to show up on the legs. The neck and face are also common spots for a melanoma. Left untreated, melanomas are more likely than other skin cancers to spread and become difficult to treat.

Melanomas can form non-cancerous moles (your doctor may call it a nevus). A normal mole is typically even in color, either brown, tan, or black, flat or raised, round or oval, but generally less wide than a pencil eraser. A mole not present at birth will usually arrive by your 20s, so when a new mole appears later on, make sure your doctor examines it. A mole may fade but it should not change size or shape.

Any spot that is new or changing is a potential melanoma. This rule will help you know the signs, though it doesn’t cover every case:

  • A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not look like the other half.
  • B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
  • D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across.
  • E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

It is also important to tell your doctor if you have a sore that doesn’t heal, pigment from a spot spreads to surrounding skin, or a mole becomes itchy or tender or oozes or bleeds.

Other less common kinds of skin cancer, accounting for less than one percent of all skin cancer, include Merkel cell carcinoma, Kaposi sarcoma, cutaneous (skin) lymphoma, and skin adnexal tumors.


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June 06, 2019

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN