Here’s a frightening statistic. Did you know that one in five adults will develop skin cancer by age 70? Fortunately, many skin cancers are curable if detected and treated early. The number of patients with skin cancer continues to rise, especially among young adults.
Why the surge in skin care cases? Sun exposure and the popularity of tanning beds play a role in this increase. The sun may give you a golden glow, but its ultraviolet rays create free radical damage that increase the risk of skin cancer and accelerate skin aging.
For this reason, it is important to be aware of the common symptoms of skin cancer and when to see a dermatologist. Here are some signs of skin cancer you should be aware of.
Your skin changes
One of the first things dermatologists tell their clients is to look for skin changes. Skin cancers in obvious places are easy to see, and you can find them yourself if you examine your skin regularly. However, you may need to use a mirror or ask your partner to check for skin changes on less visible areas, like your back.
There are a few things to look for: moles and spots, bumps, lumps, and discolorations. If something is changing on your skin, whether it’s new or has changed over time, get it checked by a dermatologist. Don’t wait, as the earlier you seek treatment, the better the prognosis.
Keep an eye on moles or marks that have irregular borders
When looking for signs of skin cancer, keep an eye on moles or marks with irregular borders. If there is asymmetry (one side looks different than the other), this may also be a warning sign of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends checking whether a mole is symmetrical by drawing an imaginary line through its middle. If the two halves differ in color, size, or shape, contact your doctor, and get it checked out.
Be suspicious of new lumps or bumps
Skin cancer can cause lumps or bumpy areas on the skin. If you develop a lump or bump on the skin that won’t go away, it could be a sign of squamous cell carcinoma — a type of skin cancer that often develops in areas that get a lot of sun exposure, like your face, ears, and hands, but can show up anywhere on the body.
Squamous cell carcinomas typically appear as firm red nodules or flat lesions with scaly crusts that may bleed easily. If you notice any new bumps on your skin or existing moles change in any way, see a dermatologist immediately.
Look for moles with variations in color
Be on the lookout for moles that are a mix of colors, such as tan, brown, pink, red, or black. Moles with more than one color raises red flags. Benign moles are usually a single color. Skin cancer called malignant melanoma can arise from a preexisting mole. As it transitions, it can change color or develop new colors or irregular colors. It’s important to catch melanoma early since it’s the most aggressive form of skin cancer.
Keep track of the size of your moles
Most people have one or more moles on their bodies, and most are benign and will never cause problems. However, cancer can arise from preexisting moles, especially in sun-exposed areas. Research shows moles that grow larger than 5 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) are more likely to turn into melanoma, which is why you should have them checked regularly and be suspicious of new ones.
Although adults can develop new moles, it’s important to check them, especially if they have suspicious signs, like asymmetry, uneven borders, or are increasing in size. Research shows that adults with more than 50 moles on their body are at higher risk of developing melanoma.
Any time a mole or skin lesion increases in size, it needs evaluation to rule out cancer. Use a ruler to monitor the size of preexisting moles that you have and record their size. Make sure they’re not changing over time. Any change merits investigation.
Be suspicious of moles that start bleeding for no reason
If you don’t have a history of skin cancer and a mole starts bleeding for no reason, get it checked by a dermatologist. The same is true if it starts itching or looks inflamed. Moles normally don’t bleed unless you abrade them or otherwise traumatize the skin. A mole that suddenly starts bleeding merits evaluation by a dermatologist to ensure it’s not undergoing a malignant change. If you have moles in areas that undergo a lot of trauma, like under a bra strap, consider having a dermatologist remove them. Repeated rubbing and trauma increase the risk of malignant transformation.
The Bottom Line
The best way to ensure that a skin change is not serious is to get it checked by a professional. If you notice anything unusual on your skin, contact your dermatologist immediately. While it’s important to seek professional guidance, it’s also important not to panic if your doctor finds something suspicious. Many of these bumps may be benign and just require monitoring over time.
Be alert and aware and do regular skin checks. Skin cancer can show up anywhere on your body, but most skin cancers start on parts that get frequent sun exposure: the face, ears, lips, neck, hands, and arms. That’s why it’s so important to protect these areas with sunscreen and protective clothing. Also, get a full skin check by a dermatologist every 6 months, especially if you are at elevated risk for skin cancer.
- “Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics – The Skin Cancer Foundation.” 22 Jan. 2016, skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/.
- “Signs of Melanoma Skin Cancer | Symptoms of Melanoma.” 14 Aug. 2019, cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html.
- “Skin Cancer Fact Sheet – American Cancer Society.” cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/microsites/circle-of-life/documents/col-skin.pdf.
- “Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma – NCI.” https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/moles-fact-sheet.
- “Melanoma – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic.” 20 Jan. 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/melanoma/symptoms-causes/syc-20374884.