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Skin Cancer Warning Signs

Medically reviewed by Seunggu Han, MD on November 6, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson on November 6, 2017
skin cancer warning signs

Like other forms of cancer, skin cancer is easiest to treat if it’s caught early. Getting a quick diagnosis requires being alert for symptoms, and reporting them to your dermatologist as soon as you spot them.

Here are some skin cancer warning signs. Some symptoms are fairly obvious. Others are subtler and harder to spot.

Skin changes

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 about once a month.

Check sun-exposed areas like your face, scalp, chest, arms, and legs. Also, look at places that are rarely exposed, such as your palms, genitals, the skin underneath your fingernails and toenails, and the soles of your feet.

Watch for these types of growths, especially if they’re new or they’ve changed:

  • a flat sore that crusts over and doesn’t heal
  • a scaly patch
  • a red bump
  • a small shiny, pearly, or translucent bump
  • a pink growth with raised edges and a dip in the middle
  • a flat, flesh-colored or brown sore that looks like a scar
  • a large brown spot
  • a red, white, blue, or blue-black sore with irregular borders
  • an itchy or painful bump
  • a bleeding or oozing sore

Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer. Experts recommend using the ABCDE rule to identify moles that could be melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: The two sides of the mole are uneven.
  • Border: The edges are ragged.
  • 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.

Signs that your cancer has spread

Skin changes are the most obvious symptom of skin cancer. Other symptoms are subtler and easier to overlook.

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

Symptoms of skin cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes:

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

Symptoms of skin cancer that has spread to the lungs:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough, possibly with blood
  • repeated chest infections

Symptoms of skin cancer that has spread to the liver:

  • pain on the right side of your belly
  • yellowing of your eyes or skin (jaundice)
  • appetite loss
  • weight loss
  • swelling in your belly
  • itchy skin

Symptoms of skin cancer that has spread to the bones:

  • aching or pain in your bones
  • backache that gets worse, even when you rest
  • bone fractures
  • increased bruising and bleeding
  • weakness or numbness in your legs
  • loss of control over your bladder or bowels

Symptoms of skin cancer that has spread to the brain:

  • severe or constant headache
  • weakness in one part of your body
  • seizures
  • personality or mood changes
  • vision changes
  • speech changes
  • imbalance
  • confusion

Some people have more general, body-wide symptoms of cancer. These can include:

  • fatigue
  • malaise
  • weight loss

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

Still, if you have any symptoms that look like skin cancer, see a dermatologist right away. The doctor will probably do a skin biopsy of the mole or sore, and send out a sample of cells to a laboratory for testing. Depending on what your doctor finds, you might also need imaging scans or other tests.

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