What Are Common Symptoms Of Skin Cancer?

The primary sign of skin cancer is a lesion or tumor on the skin. You may not have any other symptoms, especially when the cancer is caught early.

Most skin cancer develops on sun-exposed skin. In rare cases, skin cancer occurs in areas that get little sun exposure. Experts recommend regular skin self-examinations.1-3 By doing this exam, you will become familiar with the normal moles and lesions on your body. This knowledge will help you to spot a suspicious change.

Pay attention to a skin change, even if it looks different from skin cancer pictures you have seen. Skin cancer has many different appearances. It can be difficult to recognize skin cancers with atypical features or in less common locations. It is important to discuss any changes with your primary care provider or dermatologist. Ask your doctor whether she or he recommends having a professional skin examination.

General warning signs for skin cancer

Skin cancers have many different appearances. General warning signs include:1,2

  • Sore or cut that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • Lesion that is changing in shape, size, or color
  • Redness, swelling, oozing, crusting on a lesion
  • Change in the look or feel of an area of skin
  • Lesion that starts to feel itchy, tender, or painful
  • Change in the surface or appearance of a mole

Typical appearance of skin cancers

Basal cell carcinoma may look like:

  • Pearly pink or white bump with visible small blood vessels
  • Scaly pink or red plaque or patch
  • Waxy, light-colored patch or scar
  • Pigmented shiny bump

Some signs of squamous cell carcinoma and its precursor, actinic keratosis are:

  • Scaly or crusty thick red or brown patch
  • Raised growth (some look like they have collapsed in the center)
  • Open sore that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • Firm, dome-shaped lesion with a plug in the center
  • Warty growth

Melanomas are typically brown or black lesions. They often are larger than regular moles and have an unusual shape and color. The ABCDE memory aid can help you to remember the characteristics of a melanoma:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color variation/unevenness
  • Diameter of 6 mm or more
  • Evolution or changes in the mole

However, some atypical melanomas do not have any of these features. For example, some melanomas are pink, red, tan, clear, or the color of normal skin.4,5 They may be small or in unusual locations.

Merkel cell carcinoma may look like:6,7

  • Rapidly growing, painless red or purplish dome-shaped lump
  • Rough, hard patch

Kaposi sarcoma lesions are red or purple. They may be flat, raised, or bumpy.8,9 Usually, the lesions are painless at first, but may ulcerate. They may develop on the skin, mucous membranes, or internal organs. Lesions on the internal organs may cause internal bleeding, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Coughing blood
  • Black or tarry stool

Symptoms of metastasis

Skin cancer, especially melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma, may spread to the lymph nodes. From there, the cancer may spread to distant parts of the body. Regional metastatic skin cancer may cause symptoms that include:

  • Visible tumors in or under the skin
  • Swollen, hard, and enlarged lymph nodes

The symptoms of distant metastatic skin cancer depend on what organs are affected.

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last reviewed: May 2017.
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