The Warning Signs of Skin Cancer
Skin cancers often start as changes to your skin that are not cancer but could become cancer over time. Skin cancers including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma can be new growths or precancerous abrasions. If found and treated early, skin cancer could be cured.
Learn to spot the early warning signs.
Also called solar keratosis, these small, scaly patches are caused by too much exposure to the sun. It occurs on the neck, head, or hands, though they can be found on any part of the body. They can be an early warning sign of skin cancer, but it’s hard to tell whether a particular patch will continue to change over time and become cancerous or not. Doctors recommend early treatment to prevent the development of squamous cell skin cancer. Blond, fair-skinned, or red-haired people with blue or green eyes are mostly at risk of developing this type of cancer.
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Actinic Cheilitis (Farmer’s Lip)
Actinic cheilitis is also referred to as farmer’s lip. It is a precancerous condition that usually appears on the lower lips. Signs may be scaly patches or persistent roughness of the lips. Less common symptoms include swelling of the lip, loss of the sharp border between the lip and skin, and protruding lip lines. If left untreated, actinic cheilitis may change into invasive squamous cell carcinoma.
The cutaneous horn is a funnel-shaped growth that extends from a red base on the skin. It is made up of compacted keratin which is the same protein in nails. It is a specialized type of actininc keratosis. The size and shape of the growth can differ greatly, but most are a few millimeters in length. Squamous cell carcinoma can be found at the base. It usually occurs in fair-skinned elderly adults with a history of excessive exposure to the sun.
Could a Mole Become Cancerous?
A mole (nevus) is a nonthreatening growth of melanocytes, cells that gives skin its color. Very few moles become cancer. However, abnormal or atypical moles can develop into melanoma over time. “Normal” moles can appear flat or raised or may begin flat and become raised over time. The surface is typically smooth. Moles that may later transform into skin cancer are often irregular in shape, larger than the size of a pencil eraser, and contain many colours.
Dysplastic Nevi (Atypical Moles)
Atypical moles are not cancer, but may likely become cancerous over time. They can be found in sun-exposed or sun-protected areas of the body. Atypical moles may be larger and more irregular in shape, with jagged or fading borders. They may be flat or raised or the surface smooth or rough. They are of mixed color, including brown, pink, red, and tan.
Know Your ABCDEs
Most moles on a person’s body look similar to one another. A mole or freckle that looks different from the others or that has any characteristics of the ABCDEs of melanoma should be checked by a dermatologist because it could be cancerous.
‘A’ is for Asymmetry
Normal moles are symmetrical. So asymmetry means one half of a mole does not match the other half. When checking your moles or freckles, draw an imaginary line through the middle and compare the two halves. If they do not look the same on both sides, consult a dermatologist.
‘B’ is for Border
Lesions of melanoma often have uneven borders. If the border or edges of the mole are blurred, ragged, or irregular, have it checked by a dermatologist.
‘C’ is for Color
A mole that does not have the same color throughout or that has shades of brown, tan, red, black, blue, or white may be cancerous. Normal moles are usually a single shade of color.
‘D’ is for Diameter
If the diameter of a mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil, it may be cancerous. Have it checked by a dermatologist.
‘E’ is for Evolving
A mole that is evolving may be growing larger, shrinking, changing color, begins to itch or bleed. If a portion of the mole appears newly elevated, or raised from the skin, have it looked at by a doctor. Melanoma lesions often grow in size or quickly change in height.
Tips for Screening Moles for Cancer
- Examine your skin on a regular basis. A common location for melanoma in men is on the back, and in women, the lower leg.
- Check your entire body for moles or suspicious spots once in every month. Start at your head and work your way down.
- Check the areas of your body that is not too exposed like between fingers and toes, the groin, soles of the feet, and the backs of the knees.
- Check your scalp and neck for moles. Use a handheld mirror or ask a family member to help you look at these areas.
- Take a photo of moles and date it to help you monitor them for change. Pay special attention to moles in times when your hormones may be rising and falling like a teen, pregnant, or going through menopause.
How Are Moles Diagnosed?
If you find a mole or spot that has any ABCDE’s of melanoma or one that’s tender, itching, oozing, scaly, doesn’t heal or has redness or swelling beyond the mole, then you need to see a dermatologist. Your doctor may want to remove a tissue sample from the mole and biopsy it. If found to be cancerous, the entire mole and a rim of normal skin around it will be removed and the wound stitched closed. Additional treatment may be required.
Malignant melanoma, especially in the later stages is difficult to treat. Early diagnosis and treatment can increase your chances of survival. Nonmelanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Both are common and are cured when detected early. People who’ve had skin cancer once are also at risk for getting it again, so they ought to get a checkup at least once a year.
Melanoma is not as common as other types of skin cancer, but it’s the most deadly. Some symptoms of melanoma include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area. See a doctor if a mole changes in colour, size, shape, has irregular edges, is more than one color, is asymmetrical, or itches, oozes, or bleeds.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This nonmelanoma skin cancer may appear as a firm red nodule, a scaly growth that bleeds or develops a crust, or a sore that doesn’t heal. It is often found on the forehead, lower lip, nose, ears, hands, and other sun-exposed areas of the body. Squamous cell carcinoma is curable if caught and treated early. If the skin cancer becomes more advanced, treatment will depend on the stage of cancer.
Bowen disease is also called squamous cell carcinoma. It is a type of skin cancer that spreads outward on the surface of the skin. Bowen disease looks like scaly, reddish patches that may be crusted; it may be mistaken for psoriasis, rashes, eczema, or fungus.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma spreads very slowly and occurs mostly in adults. is the most common and easiest-to-treat skin cancer. Basal cell tumors can take on many forms, including a pearly white or waxy bump, often with visible blood vessels, on the ears, neck, or face. Tumors can also appear as a flat, scaly, flesh-colored or brown patch on the back or chest, or more rarely, a white, waxy scar.
Less Common Skin Cancers
Uncommon types of skin cancer include Kaposi’s sarcoma, mainly seen in people with weakened immune systems; sebaceous gland carcinoma, an aggressive cancer originating in the oil glands in the skin; and Merkel cell carcinoma, which is usually found on sun-exposed areas on the head, neck, arms, and legs but often spreads to other parts of the body.
Who Gets Skin Cancer, and Why?
The major cause of skin cancer is sun exposure. However, this doesn’t explain skin cancers that develop on skin not exposed to sunlight. Exposure to environmental hazards, radiation treatment, and even heredity may partly be responsible. Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have:
- An abundance of large and irregularly-shaped moles
- A family history of skin cancer
- Fair skin or light-colored eyes
- A history of excessive sun exposure or blistering sunburns
- Lived at high altitudes or with year-round sunshine
- Received radiation treatments
Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer
- Limit your exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher while outdoors, (don’t forget the lips and ears!).
- Wear a hat and sunglasses, and cover up with clothing.
- See a doctor immediately if you notice changes to your skin such as a new growth, a mole changing appearance, or a sore that won’t heal.