How Can I Identify Skin Cancer?

By Christina Burr, Dermatology Physician Assistant

Did you know that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer?  While it can occur at any age, the risk for skin cancer increases as you age.  It is caused by a variety of factors including sun exposure and genetics.  The good news is that if you catch skin cancer early, most types are very treatable.

The three most common types of skin cancer are Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Melanoma.  Since early detection is important, we strongly encourage everyone to see their local dermatology provider for a yearly skin examination to screen for skin cancer and to educate yourself on what changes to watch for in your skin at home. A simple skin screening with your dermatology provider could save your life.  It’s simple, easy, doesn’t take long, and can give you peace of mind.

Risk Factors

Your chance for getting skin cancer increases if any of the below applies to you.

*Frequent Sun exposure


*Multiple sunburns during your lifetime

*More than 50 moles

*Blue or green eyes

*Fair skin

*Family history of skin cancer

*Tanning Beds

*History of radiation, chemotherapy, organ transplant or are immune compromised

Next, I will explain a little about “pre-cancers” as well as each of the three most common types of skin cancer. We will look at where on the body they typically occur, what they look like, and treatment options for each.

Actinic Keratoses:

Actinic Keratoses, which are frequently called “pre-cancers” occur most often in sun-exposed areas usually on the face, scalp, and arm. They do have the potential to grow into skin cancer. They often look like a dry, scaly, pink area that won’t go away despite moisturizing. If it does go away, it often comes back in the same area.  Sometimes they are tender, sensitive, sore, or bleed, but not always.

When found early, Actinic Keratoses can usually be easily treated with liquid nitrogen or a prescription AK topical. You should contact your dermatology provider for evaluation if you have a dry scaly pink area that lasts longer than 4-6 weeks despite moisturizer.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC):

basal cell carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, frequently occurring in areas exposed to sun such as your face, arms, back, and chest.

Most often it looks like either a shiny flat pink area on the skin or a pink pimple-like lesion that won’t go away.  While it often is painless at first, if untreated a Basal Cell can over time begin to bleed, ulcerate into an open wound, and become sore, painful, or locally destructive. It typically doubles in size every year, so the sooner it is treated the easier it is to treat and the less damage will be done.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It is most often found on sun exposed areas of skin often the ears, face, scalp, and lips but can occur anywhere on the body.

Sometimes it looks like an irritated or dry patch of skin or a wound or scab that won’t heal.  Usually it grows slowly over time, but there is a type of SCC that grows quickly, often over days to weeks and frequently is described as a hard, pink, painful horn-like lesion.

When caught early, a Squamous Cell Carcinoma can often be treated with a small in-office procedure or topical prescription. If left untreated, SCC will continue to grow, can bleed, become a painful wound-like lesion, and has the potential to eventually spread to other parts of the body.



Melanoma is the deadliest forms of skin cancer. Catching it early is extremely important. It can occur in a changing mole or as a new lesion on the skin and can occur anywhere on the body, even on the bottoms of feet, toes, under nails, on the scalp, buttocks and genitalia.

We are seeing a significant increase in Melanoma especially in young adults.  Using a tanning bed significantly increases your risk of Melanoma.

When a melanoma is caught in its earliest form (Melanoma in situ), it can most often be easily treated with an in-office excision and close follow-up. When Melanoma is found late (Stage IV), that person often requires extensive oncology intervention and radiation in addition to surgical excision.

So the message is if you feel a mole is changing—don’t wait!  If you start to notice a mole rapidly growing, changing colors, itching, or bleeding you should have it evaluated. You should also contact your dermatology provider if you notice a mole has a fading or unclear edge to its border, if it has multiple colors, if you develop a new mole as an adult, notice a dark line in or near a fingernail/toenail or if one mole just doesn’t look like the rest of your moles.

Prevention is Key

There are some effective, simple steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting skin cancer:

*Sun Protection: We want you to get outside and enjoy life.  We also want you to protect your skin as best you can while you are out there.

*Get a yearly skin check with your local dermatology provider.

*Check your skin at home regularly for any changes.

*Wear Sunscreen. Every day. You would be surprised by how much sun you can get during your normal daily activities. We recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen containing Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide with at least an SPF 30. Examples of a few sunscreens I recommend include Cetaphil SPF 50, Cerave SPF 30, and Neutrogena Healthy Defense SPF 45. If you use a spray sunscreen, be sure to hold your breath while applying and apply out of the wind. Inhaling the spray is unhealthy for your lungs. Reapplication is essential. Reapply your sunscreen every two to three hours, or if you are sweating or swimming, every 80 minutes.

*Wear protective clothing such as a wide brim hat, sunglasses, sun shirts, etc.

*Avoid the heat of the day and seek shade whenever possible.  Try to avoid direct sun between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.

*Quit Smoking.  Smoking increases your risk for Squamous Cell Skin Cancer.

*Avoid Tanning Beds. Tanning beds increase your risk for skin cancer including Melanoma.

If you have questions or want more information, I am here to help. Call Dermatology at Southwest Health 608.342.6285 to schedule an appointment with me.

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