Understanding What Skin Cancer Looks Like Can Save Your Life

what does skin cancer look like

The most common form of cancer, skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of skin cells. It occurs when the DNA of skin cells is damaged, often as the result of too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. This damage leads to mutations that cause skin cells to multiply more rapidly than normal and form tumors. Knowing what skin cancer looks like can help you spot the signs sooner rather than later.

Types of Skin Cancer and Their Appearance

Your skin has multiple layers. Skin cancer typically develops in the outer layer, called the epidermis. The epidermis is made up of three kinds of cells: basal cells, squamous cells and melanocytes. Cancer can occur in each type.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas can be treated effectively, especially if found early. They do not commonly spread, although they can cause significant damage to surrounding tissue and bone if not addressed. Basal cell carcinomas may have characteristics that include:

  • Flat, firm growths that may be pale, pink or red, or in some cases translucent and shiny
  • Black, blue or brown patches on the skin
  • Unusual patches that bleed easily or ooze and crust
  • A raised area with a depression in the center

Squamous cell carcinoma

The earlier a squamous cell carcinoma is discovered and treated, the better the prognosis. This form of cancer can have:

  • A lump with a scaly, rough or custy surface
  • A slow-growing flat patch that is reddish in color
  • A flat patch that is different than surrounding skin, but only slightly


Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, as it can spread to other parts of the body. According the American Cancer Society, while melanoma accounts for only 1 percent of skin cancers, it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths. Prompt identification and treatment is crucial with this form of cancer.

Melanoma characteristics include:

  • Irregular or asymmetrical moles or other growths
  • A mole larger than a pencil eraser
  • Growths both in sun-exposed areas and other areas such as the bottoms of the feet and armpits.

When evaluating a mole, it is helpful to remember the “ABCDEs.” They are:

Asymmetrical shape
Border irregularities
Color that isn’t consistent
Diameter larger than 6 millimeters
Evolving size or shape

If a mole demonstrates any of these characteristics, contact your health care provider. It is also recommended that you take photos of the mole periodically and note the date so that its changes, if any, can be tracked.

Through the use of sunscreen and sun-protection clothing, monthly or more frequent self-exams, and consultation with your doctor as needed, skin cancer risk can be minimized.

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