What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Dermatologist inspecting patient's shoulder with a magnifying glass

With summer in full swing you may be spending some time in the sun soaking up rays. However, if you’re planning to spend more time out in the sun, you must practice sun safety and exercise extreme caution when it comes to skin cancers such as melanoma. It is critical to know how to prevent skin cancers and detect them early when they do occur.

Emily Chu, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Penn Medicine, explained that of the three most common types of skin cancer—basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma— melanoma is the least frequent but most dangerous. “Over 80 percent of all melanomas are detected by either the patients themselves or their partners, which makes awareness of risk factors and warning signs very important,” she explained.

Who is at risk for melanoma?

Certain people are at greater risk for skin cancer including melanoma than others. The individuals with the greatest risk of developing skin cancer and melanoma are:

  • Individuals who are fair skinned
  • Anyone with a first degree relative who has had melanoma
  • Anyone who has a personal history of melanoma
  • People who have multiple moles—often in the hundreds
  • People who have a history of blistering sunburns in childhood
  • People who have a history of chronic sun exposure

While these factors may increase the risk of melanoma, it is also important to remember that anyone can get skin cancer, even dark skinned people of color, and that having a risk factor does not mean that you will get the disease.

What does skin cancer look like?

Dr. Chu explained the ABCDE system that doctors commonly use to describe “worrisome” moles.

  • A is for asymmetry. If you could fold the mole over on itself, the two halves would not be the same size or shape.
  • B is for borders. Melanomas often have very irregular borders.
  • C is for color. Melanomas are often darker than other moles and have different colors in different parts of the mole.
  • D is for diameter. Melanomas are often—but not always—larger than other moles.
  • E is for evolving. Melanomas often change their size or appearance.

Dr. Chu urged people, especially those with multiple moles, to “look for the ‘ugly duckling’ or the mole that is different, changes, or is new.” However, these types of moles can be difficult to detect especially when they are located in areas hidden in plain view. “Patients who are concerned about moles and unsure if they qualify as being ‘ugly ducklings’ may want to consider whole body photography,” she explained, “this will help them to document the moles that are present and increase the probability of finding new or evolving moles.”

Breaking the habit for healthy skin

Now that you know who is at risk and what to look for with skin cancers and melanoma, how can you take action to prevent it? Here are some things you can do to now to reduce your risk of developing cancer later.

  • Check your skin once a month
  • See a dermatologist annually
  • Use a waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 on all exposed areas of the skin and apply every two hours after swimming
  • Wear protective clothing

While these steps are all very simple, Neal Nizman, LCSW, a licensed social worker for radiation oncology at Penn Medicine found that a majority of men and women are not actively participating in these steps. Neal stated that the reasoning for this is, “Humans are creatures of habit. We are moving too fast, or are too busy to take even simple precautions. We don’t think that bad things will happen to us.” When it comes to preventing and detecting melanoma, however, it pays to be a little more mindful and take the extra precautions. Neal further explained, “The best approach to melanoma is prevention—and the most effective treatment when it does occur comes when the disease is detected early.”

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