Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. More than 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

The warning signs of skin cancer can vary. Some symptoms are easy to spot, while others are more subtle and harder to detect.

If you notice any unusual moles, spots, or marks on your skin, it’s important to visit your doctor. If your doctor suspects skin cancer, they’ll refer you to a dermatologist for testing and diagnosis.

Like other types of cancer, skin cancer is easiest to treat if it’s caught early.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of the most common types of skin cancer and how it’s diagnosed. We’ll also also look at potential warning signs that skin cancer has potentially spread beyond your skin.

Skin cancer is divided into different categories depending on what type of cells are affected. Each type of skin cancer comes with its own warning signs. The most common types of skin cancer are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer, affecting close to 20 percent of Americans. This cancer forms in basal cells at the bottom of your upper layer of skin called your epidermis.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer. More than one million Americans are diagnosed with this type of skin cancer each year. It develops in squamous cells, which are flat cells near the surface of your skin.
  • Melanoma. Melanoma develops in cells called melanocytes that create the pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanoma only makes up about 1 percent of skin cancers but causes most skin cancer deaths.

The main symptom of skin cancer is a mole or other growth on your skin. To find these growths, you need to look for them. Some doctors recommend that you do a full-body self-exam in front of a mirror once a month.

Most skin cancers develop in sun-exposed areas like your face, scalp, chest, arms, and legs so it’s important to check these areas.

It’s also a good idea to check places that are rarely exposed, such as your palms, genitals, your fingernails and toenails, and the soles of your feet.

Learn more about skin cancer screening.

Basal cell carcinoma warning signs

Basal cell carcinoma typically develops on parts of your body exposed to sunlight, but it does occasionally occur in other places. Warning signs often include:

  • an open sore that doesn’t heal or heals and returns; it may ooze or crust over
  • a pink growth with raised edges and a depressed center, sometimes with abnormal blood vessels that resemble the spokes of a wheel
  • a small pink or red bump that’s shiny, pearly, or translucent; it may have areas that are black, blue, or brown
  • a raised red patch that itches
  • a flat and firm area that resemble a pale or yellow scar

Pictures of basal cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma warning signs

Squamous cell carcinoma can take on many different appearances. The warning signs can include:

  • a rough and red scaly patch
  • an open sore that often has raised borders
  • a firm, dome-shaped growth
  • a growth resembling a wart
  • a sore that developed in an old scar
  • a horn-shaped growth

Pictures of squamous cell carcinoma

Melanoma warning signs

Melanoma accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths. It often first appears as changes to a preexisting mole. Experts recommend looking for the “ABCDE” signs to identify moles that could be melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: one half of a mole or lesion does not match the other
  • Border: the edges are irregularly shaped or poorly defined
  • Color: the mole contains different colors, such as red, blue, black, pink, or white
  • Diameter: the mole measures more than 1/4 inch across — about the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving: the mole is changing in size, shape, or color

Another warning sign for melanoma is the “Ugly Duckling” rule. Most normal moles look similar to each other. A mole that stands out from others should raise suspicion and be examined by a medical professional.

Pictures of melanoma

If you have any suspicious spot on your skin that could be skin cancer, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. Diagnosing skin cancer early greatly improves the ability to treat it successfully.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if melanoma is caught early, your 5-year survival is 99 percent. The 5-year survival rate drops to 66 percent if melanoma spreads to the lymph nodes. The 5-year survival rate is around 27 percent if the cancer reaches distant organs.

It’s important to see your doctor if you notice any of these changes.

According to the American Cancer Society, most skin cancers don’t cause painful symptoms until they grow quite large. It’s important to see a doctor if you have a suspicious mark on your skin even if it doesn’t hurt.

Sometimes skin cancer does cause pain. If the cancer spreads along a nerve, it can cause itchiness, pain, tingling, or numbness.

Your doctor will examine the area of concern and ask you about your family history, medical history, and sun exposure. If they suspect skin cancer they’ll refer you to a a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in the skin.

A dermatologist can perform a biopsy. During this procedure, they’ll surgically remove part or all of the spot or mole. This tissue sample will then be sent to a lab for analysis.

If your test comes back positive, you may need to receive additional tests such as imaging and blood tests to help identify the extent of the cancer. A lymph node biopsy may be performed to see if it has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are usually surgically removed at the dermatologist’s office or in an outpatient setting.

Depending on how much needs to be removed, this is usually a fairly quick procedure. You’ll be awake during the procedure, but the skin around the carcinoma will be numbed so you won’t feel pain or much sensation while the procedure is being done.

For larger skin lesions or those with ill-defined borders, a more extensive type of surgery, called Mohs surgery, may be necessary. It involves microscopic analysis of the tissue cells that have been removed while the surgery is taking place.

More aggressive cancers, like melanoma, usually need more extensive surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and possibly the lymph nodes. Radiation therapy may be needed after the surgery to kill any cancer cells that may still be in the lymph nodes.

If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapies may be included as part of the treatment plan.

Melanoma can spread to other parts of your body, including your lymph nodes, brain, liver, and lungs. Your symptoms can give clues to where the cancer has spread.

Cancer that has spread beyond the original part of your body where it began is called metastatic cancer. General symptoms of metastatic skin cancer can include:

Symptoms that skin cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes include:

  • hard bumps under the skin in your neck, armpit, or groin
  • trouble swallowing
  • swelling of your neck or face

Symptoms that skin cancer may have spread to the lungs include:

Symptoms that skin cancer may have spread to the liver include:

Symptoms that skin cancer may have spread to the brain include:

All of these symptoms can also be warning signs of other conditions. Just because you have one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer.

To get a proper diagnosis, be sure to follow up with your doctor or healthcare professional.

It’s important to regularly monitor your skin for changes that could be an early sign of skin cancer. Skin cancer can have many different appearances such as lumps, bumps, sores, moles, or other marks.

Warning signs of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, often follow the acronym ABCDE to identify unusual moles.

Despite making up a small percentage of skin cancers, melanoma is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths. If not caught early, it can spread quickly to other parts of your body.

It’s important to visit your doctor if you notice any new or unusual spot on your skin, a sore that doesn’t heal, changes to a pre-existing mole, or any other changes to your skin that concern you.