Checking your body for skin cancer may not be as easy as you think. Here’s what you should look for.
Know the signs of skin cancer
You’ve likely been told to look out for moles that change colour or size, but many more common types of skin cancer don’t look like moles at all, but red sores, wart-like bumps or scaly patches. “We tell people to look for anything new, or anything that doesn’t heal after a while,” explains a Doctor.
Actinic keratosis (pre-cancerous)
What it is: Actinic keratosis is non-cancerous but an estimated 10 percent of these sores can morph into squamous cell carcinoma if they’re not removed. These patches usually develop in older adults in areas of the skin that have accumulated decades of UV exposure.
What it looks like: An actinic keratosis looks much like basal or squamous cell cancers, except that they tend to be smaller. In fact, many won’t even see it at first but may notice something rough on their skin. In many cases, patients will develop more than one actinic keratosis.
How it’s treated: Actinic keratosis is most often treated by freezing, burning, cutting out or scraping away the lesion.
Basal cell carcinoma (cancerous)
What it is: The most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinomas are found in the skin cells responsible for producing new cells. They’re usually found on sun-exposed areas of the face and neck. Basal cell cancers grow so slowly that they rarely cause harm.
What it looks like: According to some doctors, basal cells most commonly look like “a raised bump on the skin” and sometimes like “a red scaly patch that doesn’t go away.” You may see blood vessels on the surface. It can be difficult to tell a basal cell from actinic keratosis or squamous cell, so a dermatologist will perform a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
How it’s treated: Some basal cell carcinomas can be treated with a cream that’s applied daily for several weeks, while others are below the surface and need to be surgically removed. Basal cell carcinoma is really curable, confirmed by doctors. But it can lead you with a scar that can be quite noticeable. For basal cell carcinomas on the face, the more advanced and precise “Mohs surgery” is often used to reduce the size of a scar.
Squamous cell carcinoma (cancerous)
What it is: Squamous cell cancer develops in the cells that make up the outer layer of the skin. Squamous cell carcinomas that turn up on areas of the skin that haven’t had much sun-exposure have a higher risk of spreading than those found on the sun-damaged skin.
What it looks like: Squamous and basal cell carcinomas can look very similar, appearing most often as crusted or scaly red sores or wart-like bumps. It tends to grow more rapidly than basal cell cancers.
How it’s treated: Like basal carcinomas, these cancers are usually treated with a topical cream or surgery, but in advanced cases, they may require radiation therapy. While squamous cell carcinomas are more dangerous than basal cell cancers, the cure rate is still 95 percent. However, squamous cell cancers must be treated right away because they can destroy skin, lip or nasal tissue and in rare cases, can spread to the lymph nodes or organs.
What it is: Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, developing in the cells that produce melanin, but it’s also the most known. That’s because it’s the most dangerous form of skin cancer as it’s more likely to spread into the lymph nodes. Melanomas that are caught early have a high treatment success rate so fair skinned people, those with a family history of melanoma and those who have a history of high sun exposure should be on the look out for signs to catch it in its earliest stage.
What it looks like: The popular conception is that melanoma occurs on an already-existing mole and while that does happen, most melanomas occur as a completely new mole. Melanoma moles are often asymmetrical or irregular looking (for example, blotchy) and may be somewhat colorful – in addition to brown, one may see black, red, pink, gray or blue. A giveaway is that the mole will change in shape or size. Melanomas are usually larger than the size of a pea.
How it’s treated: Early stage melanomas need only be surgically removed, while more advanced melanomas may require chemotherapy or radiation therapy.