Skin cancer

Skin cancer most often develops on areas of your body that get the greatest exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It’s commonly found on your face, chest, arms, and hands.

Skin cancer can also develop on less exposed areas of your body, such as these locations:

  • scalp
  • ears
  • lips
  • neck
  • under your fingernails
  • bottoms of your feet
  • genitals

Skin cancers often appear as a suspicious mole, freckle, or spot. But accompanying symptoms depend on the type of skin cancer.

An actinic keratosis, known as a precancer, is a scaly or crusty lesion. It may appear on various areas of your body:

  • scalp
  • face
  • ears
  • lips
  • back of your hands
  • forearms
  • shoulders
  • neck

These areas are most frequently exposed to the sun. These lesions are sometimes so small that they’re found by touch instead of sight. They’re often raised, and may feel like a small patch of sandpaper on your skin. The lesions commonly turn red, but they can also be tan or pink. They may stay the same color as your skin.

It’s important to treat actinic keratosis early. Untreated lesions have up to a 10 percent chance of becoming squamous cell carcinoma.

Basal cell carcinoma develops in your basal skin cells. These cells are at the bottom of your epidermis, the outer layer of your skin.

Basal cell carcinoma has several different appearances. It can look like a:

  • sore that doesn’t heal after seven to 10 days
  • red patch that may itch, hurt, crust, or bleed easily
  • shiny bump that can be pink, red, or white if you have light skin. If you have darker skin, it can look tan, black, or brown.
  • pink growth with an elevated border and an indented center

This type of skin cancer also usually appears on the areas of your body most exposed to the sun. Basal cell carcinomas tend to be easy to treat. These growths develop very slowly, making it less likely they’ll spread to other organs or invade muscle, bone, or nerves.

Squamous cell carcinomas commonly occur on more sun-exposed body parts. They can also appear on the inside of your mouth or on your genitals. The tumors caused by squamous cell carcinoma can take a variety of forms, including:

  • scaly, red patches that bleed
  • open sores that bleed, crust, and don’t heal
  • tender, raised growths with a center indent that bleeds
  • a growth that resembles a wart, but crusts and bleeds

Squamous cell carcinoma is also known to feel tender and cause intense itching, which further irritates and inflames your skin. Scratching these areas of your skin can lead to infections that need to be treated with antibiotics.

Left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can grow larger. In rare cases, these lesions can spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

While melanoma isn’t the most common type of skin cancer, it’s the most serious. It frequently develops on the legs of women and on the chest, back, head, and neck of men. However, this type of skin cancer can be found anywhere on your body, even in your eye.

Use the “ABCDE” method to determine if a mole or freckle may be melanoma. You’ll want to see your doctor if any of these symptoms apply.

A: asymmetrical

If you drew a line down the middle of a healthy mole, both sides will look very similar. Cancerous moles are asymmetrical. This means that one half of a cancerous mole looks very different from the other.

B: border

The edges of a healthy freckle or mole should feel smooth and fairly even. Ragged, raised, or notched borders can be a sign of cancer.

C: change in color

A healthy freckle or mole should be a uniform color. Color variation may be caused by cancer. Keep an eye out for different shades of:

  • tan
  • brown
  • black
  • red
  • white
  • blue

D: diameter

A mole or freckle that’s larger than 6 millimeters (about the diameter of a pencil eraser) may be a sign of skin cancer.

E: evolving

Take note of any new moles or freckles. You should also look for changes in color or size of your existing moles.

Most types of skin cancer that are diagnosed in the early stages are treated by removing the lesion. This can be done several ways:

Cryosurgery: Liquid nitrogen is applied to your growth to freeze it. The growth then falls off or shrinks without any incisions. This method is often used to treat actinic keratosis.

Curettage and electrodesiccation: Your growth is scraped off with an instrument known as a curette. The area is then burned with an electrocautery needle to destroy any remaining skin cancer cells.

Creams: Your doctor may prescribe topical preparations such as imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) and 5-fluorouracil (Carac, Efudex). You use these creams for several weeks to remove actinic keratosis and superficial basal cell carcinomas.

Excisional surgery: Your growth and the surrounding skin that appears healthy are removed with a scalpel. The healthy skin is then tested for evidence of skin cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the procedure is repeated.

Cancer that has spread to your lymph nodes or other organs will require more invasive treatments. This may include chemotherapy or surgery. Talk to your doctor about the treatment option that is best for you.

You can lower your risk of developing skin cancer with these prevention tips:

  • Use a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF every day. Apply it 15 to 30 minutes before going outside.
  • If you’re sweating a lot or swimming, reapply your sunscreen every two hours.
  • Avoid the sun between peak sun hours, which are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you must be outside, wear sunglasses, hats, and light clothing that will cover your skin.
  • Do a self-examination of your skin at least once a month.
  • Have your doctor do an annual examination of your skin.