Suspicious spot? How to tell if your spot, mole, pimple, or scar is skin cancer

Suspicious spot? How to tell if your spot, mole, pimple, or scar is skin cancer

6 minute read

It is not uncommon to notice a new spot of concern on your body. The skin is the body’s largest organ and is constantly making new skin cells. If you notice a new spot, such as a pimple that won’t go away, a scar that won’t heal, or a mole that seems to be changing, you may be at risk of having one of the following types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or malignant melanoma.

What are the different types of the most common skin cancers?

The most common skin cancers are melanoma skin cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer - which includes basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). There are more rare forms of skin cancer; however, the overwhelming majority fall into these three diagnoses.

Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, forms from abnormal cell growth within the basal cell layer of the epidermis. At first, a basal cell carcinoma may look like a small pearly bump that appears as a flesh-colored mole or pimple, a dry scaling patch, or a small scratch that doesn’t go away after 4 weeks. Basal cell carcinomas can also appear as dark, pink, or red patches that are slightly scaly.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. SCC occurs when cancer develops in the squamous cells that make up the middle and outer layers of the skin. A SCC can show up in many different forms, including a dome-shaped bump that resembles a wart, a red, scaly patch of skin, an open sore that doesn’t heal completely, or a growth with raised edges. Two percent of squamous cell carcinomas can spread to other parts of the body, and are rarely, thanks to new treatments, fatal. These are usually larger lesions, neglected lesions, developed in an old scar, or in people who have a suppressed immune systems.

One of the most serious forms of skin cancer to look out for is malignant melanoma. Melanomas are most commonly found as new or changing lesions or spots on the skin, making it essential to have routine skin exams to check for any new spots of concern. Melanomas may appear as a flat, or slightly raised, and discolored, asymmetrical patch with uneven borders. These lesions may be any variety of colors, including shades of tan, brown, black, red, pink, blue, gray or even white.

Not all skin cancers look alike, but there are several common symptoms and signs to look out for. Ask yourself the following questions when looking at a spot on your body that seems suspicious:

    1. Is your spot a mole that looks suspicious?

A suspicious mole is one that has changed in appearance or one that is new to your skin and changing or looks different from the other moles on your body. If it looks suspicious, it is a good idea to have it reviewed by a professional. This includes your face, head, and neck, although BCCs and SCCs can appear anywhere. Melanomas may occur anywhere as well but are most common where sunburns occur: the back in men and arms/legs in women. If you are worried your spot may be something more serious, such as malignant melanoma, using the ABCDE rule to check for common signs and symptoms is the first step in deciding if it is time to see a board-certified dermatologist.

    2. Is your spot a pimple, scar, scaly spot, or lesion that won’t go away?

It is common to develop a new blemish on your face, back, chest, or really anywhere on your body. This is known as acne, which affects millions of people all around the world. However, if you notice that a pimple has been present for several weeks without going away, it may be time to have a dermatologist look at it. Sometimes these can also present as pink, scaling patches that do not go away with moisturizer for months at a time. If you have a scar and you don’t remember having a good reason for it, this also could be a sign of skin cancer.

    3. Is your spot a waxy or pearly bump?

At first, a basal cell carcinoma can start up as a small pearly bump that looks like a flesh-colored mole or a pimple that doesn't go away. You may also see shiny pink or red patches that are slightly scaly. Another symptom to watch out for is a waxy, hard skin growth as this is could be a telling of skin cancer. If your spot matches any of these descriptions, you should have it evaluated by your local dermatologist.

When should I be concerned that a spot may be skin cancer?

It is time to see a dermatologist if your spot, scratch, pimple or mole has not healed in 4-6 weeks. Below are several key descriptions to look out for that may be indicative of the above mentioned skin cancers:

  • Any sore on your body that doesn’t heal after 4-6 weeks
  • Any mole that has redness of swelling beyond the border
  • Any change in the appearance of a mole including oozing, scaliness, bleeding, itching, pain, or tenderness

For suspicious lines or spots that are on your nails, dermatologists recommend looking for the following changes:

A single dark streak - this could appear as a brown or black streak in the nail. These colored bands are often found on the thumb or big toe of your dominant hand or foot. Many people of darker skin types can have brown streaks, often on several finger or toenails, but they should look similar.

Hyperpigmentation next to the pigmented streak in the nail - when the skin surrounding your nail becomes darker in color, it could be a sign of melanoma.

A bump or nodule under your nails - this could be telling of skin cancer beneath the nail.

If you remember nothing else - stick with ABCDE

Regardless of the guidelines above, if you are worried about a spot, you should contact your provider. When in doubt, consider the ABCDE rule of thumb, which stands for asymmetry, border, color, diameter and evolving. These are the defining characteristics of skin damage that providers look for when diagnosing melanoma skin cancer. After examining your spot of concern, go through the above descriptions to determine if your spot of concern may be worth having your doctor look at.

The above are only a few examples of some key things to look out for. An in-person skin spot check screening will allow you to know how risky your spot is for skin cancer in less than 2 days, which can be essential if you live far from a dermatologist or cannot get in to see a dermatologist for several months.

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