Symptoms and Signs of Skin Cancer

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 8/30/2021

Doctor's Notes on Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common of all human cancers. There are three major types of skin cancers: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. Most skin cancers are BCCs or SCCs which may be locally disfiguring if not treated early, but they usually do not spread to other parts of the body. A small number of skin cancers are malignant melanomas, which are highly aggressive and tend to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Melanomas can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated promptly.

Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) skin cancer include

  • a raised,
  • smooth,
  • pearly bump on the sun-exposed skin of the head,
  • neck, or shoulders.

Small blood vessels may be visible within the tumor and a central depression with crusting and bleeding is common. It may be mistaken for a sore that does not heal.

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) skin cancer include

  • a well-defined,
  • red,
  • scaling,
  • thickened patch on sun-exposed skin that may ulcerate and bleed.

If not treated, untreated, squamous cell carcinoma may develop into a large mass. Symptoms of malignant melanoma skin cancer include brown to black pigmented lesions. Warning signs that are indicative of malignant melanoma include

  • changes in size,
  • shape,
  • color, or elevation of a mole;
  • new mole that develops during adulthood;
  • or new pain,
  • itching,
  • ulceration, or
  • bleeding of an existing mole.

What Is the Treatment for Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is treated by a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions and diseases. The treatment of different types of skin cancers varies based on the type of skin cancer (non-melanoma vs. melanoma) and the extent of the disease. There are different types of treatment for patients with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, and actinic keratosis. The treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers may include:

  • Eight types of standard treatment
    • Surgery 
    • Radiation therapy 
    • Chemotherapy 
    • Photodynamic therapy
    • Immunotherapy
    • Targeted therapy
    • Chemical peel
  • Patients may consider taking part in a clinical trial
    • Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting cancer treatment

Melanoma skin cancers are treated more aggressively. Melanoma is more deadly and more likely to spread if untreated. Based on the stage of the melanoma skin cancer, treatment may include:

  • Surgery 
  • Immunotherapy 
  • Targeted therapy drugs 
  • Chemotherapy 
  • Radiation therapy 

The prognosis for skin cancer depends on the type of cancer and whether it has spread:

  • Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, the two most common forms of skin cancer, are highly treatable if detected early and treated properly, and are usually not deadly
  • The five-year survival rate for melanoma detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 99%
  • The five-year survival rate for melanoma that spreads to nearby lymph nodes is 66% 
  • The five-year survival rate for melanoma that spreads to distant lymph nodes and other parts of the body is 27%

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.