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Symptoms & Diagnosis

While it's important to have a dermatologist examine any suspicious areas, being aware of the signs of skin cancer can help you determine when you should seek a professional opinion. Skin cancer signs differ between the various types. Fortunately, most skin lesions are not skin cancers, but a dermatologist is most qualified to make a definite diagnosis.

Mohs surgery is the most effective treatment for most types of skin cancer. To learn more, find a fellowship trained Mohs surgeon in your area.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. See skin cancer photos.

Where to watch:

Basal cell carcinoma often appears on areas most exposed to the sun such as the head, face, ears, neck, upper back, hands, and arms.

What to look for:

It can look like a small, pearly, translucent bump, an area of thickened scar tissue, or a red, scaly patch. They can often bleed, crust over, but not completely heal.

Skin Cancer symptoms model photo

Squamous Cell Cancer

While people with light skin, hair, and eyes have the greatest risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, chronic sun exposure increases anyone's risk as well. It differs primarily from basal cell carcinoma in its ability to spread into the lymph nodes and internal organs. See skin cancer photos.

Where to watch:

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) often appears on the scalp, face, ears, lips, hands, and lower legs.

What to look for:

The early stages of squamous cell skin cancer can appear as a red, scaly, flat patch, or a scaly bump. Sometimes, rapidly growing SCCs can be quite tender to the touch. The majority of these, however, are pain-free.


Melanoma is not the most common type of skin cancer, but it is one of the most dangerous. Only about a third of melanomas arise from previously-existing moles. The rest of them arise from an otherwise normal-appearing area of skin.

Where to watch:

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body. In men, it's most common on the chest, abdomen, or back; in women, it's most common on the lower legs.

What to look for:

Some of the warning signs for melanoma include:

  • A dark spot that appears suddenly next to or within an existing mole.
  • An existing mole changes in the color or size.
  • An existing mole begins crusting, oozing, or bleeding.
  • Pigment spreads from the border of a mole into surrounding skin.
  • A mole becomes tender, painful, or itchy.

Skin Cancer Diagnosis

If you notice a suspicious change on your skin, it's important to see a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening as soon as possible. Examining your skin on a monthly basis is the best way to catch skin cancer as early as possible. Pay attention to any changes. Get to know the pattern of your moles, scars, spots, freckles, and other marks on your skin so you can detect any changes. Early diagnosis and treatment increase your chances of curing the cancer.

The most common way to diagnose skin cancer is through a biopsy. The dermatologist will numb the area, then remove all or a portion of the suspicious area. The tissue is usually sent to a lab to be examined under a microscope by a dermatopathologist. Your doctor will want to know when you first noticed the change in your skin, your symptoms, and your history of sun exposure.

It's important to have your skin regularly examined by a dermatologist. Make an appointment immediately if you find any suspicious areas. View some examples of skin cancer photos.

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