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What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Written by: June Kim, MD

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide, with more than 9,500 people diagnosed every day in the United States. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and its number one cause is prolonged exposure to UV radiation.

Fortunately, when detected early, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent. Therefore, it is crucial to be able to recognize different types of skin cancer and visit a dermatologist at least once a year to ensure early detection.

Types of Skin Cancers

The three most common types of skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. In order to identify any abnormal skin cell growths, it is necessary to understand the different ways that skin cancer presents itself.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. This type of skin cancer originates in the lower regions of the epidermis at the basal cell layer and has a slow growth pattern. These cancers typically form on areas exposed to the sun and can invade bone and other tissues beneath the skin if left untreated. If not entirely removed, basal cell carcinoma is likely to regrow. Basal cell carcinoma may look like:

  • Open sores
  • Shiny bumps
  • Lesions without clearly defined borders
  • Pink growths
  • Slightly elevated scars or growths
  • Red patches
  • Brown, black, or blue lesions

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer and also tends to develop in sun-exposed regions. This type of cancer is more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma and is most frequently found on the face, ears, neck, lips, or hands. Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as:

  • Scaly, red patches
  • Open sores
  • Rough, thickened, or wart-like skin
  • Raised growths with a central depression

Malignant Melanoma

Although less common than basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer due to its ability to rapidly invade other organs if not treated at an early stage. Melanoma originates in the skin cells found in the upper layer of the skin, also known as melanocytes. When melanocytes are exposed to UV radiation, DNA damage sometimes occurs and results in abnormal cellular growth. Since it is critical to recognize the early warning signs of melanoma, here are some tips on what to look out for:

  • Asymmetry: most melanomas are asymmetrical; try drawing a line through the middle of a lesion to see if the two halves match
  • Border: some melanoma borders are uneven with scalloped or notched edges
  • Color: melanoma lesions may contain numerous shades of browns, tans, blacks, reds, whites, or blues
  • Diameter or Dark: lesions larger than ¼ inch in diameter are a warning sign, as well as lesions that are darker than others
  • Evolving: any change in a blemish on your body, whether size, shape, or shade, may be a warning sign

Less Common Types of Skin Cancer

Other types of skin cancer that are less common include:

  • Merkel Cell Carcinoma: a rare, aggressive form of skin cancer that may emerge as a pearly pimple-like lump, either skin-colored, red, purple, or bluish-red
  • Atypical Fibroxanthoma:
  • Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans: forms in the deepest layers of the skin and may look like a regular scar, cyst, or bruise, but typically grows to become a sizable lump beneath the skin

Skin Cancer Treatment at Cascade Eye & Skin Centers

Although self-monitoring your body is important for early detection, so is visiting a dermatologist at least once a year. Visit one of Cascade Eye & Skin Center locations to see a dermatology specialist.

A member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Mohs Surgery, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, and the American Medical Association, Dr. Kim’s main areas of practice are medical and surgical dermatology with a focus on Mohs micrographic surgery.Call (253) 435-5320 or click here to learn more about the extensive dermatology services that Cascade Eye & Skin Centers has to offer!

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