Wellness·6 min read

Do I Have...Skin Cancer?

I Think I Have...Skin Cancer
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
June 25, 2021

The Story 

Your body’s a wonderland...of moles, freckles, and dark spots. But before you Google, “What does skin cancer look like,” know the facts. 

Let’s start with the basics. Skin cancer is…

  • External. At least at the beginning. The skin has several layers, but the two main ones are the epidermis (outer, where skin cancer strikes) and the dermis (lower). 

  • Varied. There are three major types: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. BCC and SCC are the most common, while melanoma — which forms in melanocytes, the cells that make the pigment melanin — is the deadliest kind of skin cancer. It has a tendency to spread to other parts of the body, but if it’s caught early, it’s usually treatable. Survival rates vary based on how far it spreads (99% if it remains localized, 66-68% if the melanoma spreads nearby, and less than 30% if it expands to other body parts). 

  • Growing. Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells, which occurs when the DNA of those cells mutates or gets damaged. These mutations lead the skin cells to grow rapidly and form masses of cancer cells. 

  • Widespread. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US. That’s not totally shocking given that skin is the body’s largest organ. But it's a young person's issue, too: melanoma is one of the most common cancers for young adults, particularly young women.

Risk factors include…

  • UV rays. Remember how DNA damage is often the root of skin cancer? Well, UV rays from the sun and tanning beds do that damage, and can trigger unusual cell growth. “Wear sunscreen” went viral for a reason. 

  • Chemical exposure. Some skin cancers can develop after long-term exposure to cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic, which can be found in contaminated water and food. 

  • Weakened immune system. The immune system helps fight cancer. So those with conditions that might weaken it are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. Think: people with HIV/AIDS and those who’ve undergone organ transplants and are taking medication that weakens their immune systems. 

  • Genetics. Certain types of skin cancer are genetic. A family history of melanoma increases the risk of getting it — especially if family members have multiple instances of it. 

  • Previous skin cancer diagnosis. If you’ve already had a basal or squamous cell diagnosis, you’re at a higher risk of a déjà vu diagnosis

  • Race. White people are more at-risk of developing skin cancer than people of color. Melanin has a protective effect in people with darker skin. However, this does not mean that those with darker skin shouldn’t wear sunblock. And a recent study showed that melanoma survival rates are lower for Black Americans. That’s partly because Black Americans are typically diagnosed at a later stage and often with a deadlier form of melanoma called acral lentiginous melanoma, which most commonly shows up on your palms and the soles of your feet.

It looks like…

It depends. Each of the three major types has different features. 

  • Basal cell carcinoma may look like...

    • A pearly white or skin-colored bump that’s slightly translucent. 

    • A brown, black, or blue raised lesion.

    • A flat, scaly, reddish patch (more common on the upper body).

    • And note that it usually occurs in areas that are exposed to the most sun, like the face and neck. 

  • Melanoma may look like

    • Alphabet soup. As in, there’s an ABCDE acronym to spot a mole that may have become cancerous. 

    • Asymmetry: One of these things is not like the other, or when the shape of one half does not match the other half.

    • Border: Irregular, ragged, or poorly-defined borders are a cause for concern. 

    • Color: Uneven color with shades of red, white, blue, black, brown, and tan may be present.

    • Diameter: A change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas can be tiny, but most are bigger than a pea or a pencil eraser.

    • Evolving: A mole that’s changed is a mole that’s a red flag.

It feels like…

Usually, not much. Skin cancer doesn’t typically come with pain, at least at first. It can itch, but that’s not a requirement. Spotting skin cancer is all about its visual presentation.

Similar symptoms could also mean…

Some of the conditions that can be mistaken for skin cancer include: 

  • Psoriasis. An immune condition that causes skin cells to build up. Both psoriasis and skin cancer can be characterized by discolored and sometimes scaly patches. But skin cancer mostly shows up in sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, arms, neck, and hands, while psoriasis is more common on elbows, knees, and the lower back. Both can cause raised spots.

  • Sebaceous hyperplasia. This is when the sebaceous glands become enlarged with trapped sebum, creating shiny (and harmless) bumps. They look similar to a basal cell carcinoma but BCCs are usually pink or red and much larger. 

  • Moles. A new mole does not mean skin cancer, but in the early stages of a mole’s growth, it can be mistaken for melanoma. Keep an eye on it and remember your ABC’s.

If you still think you have skin cancer, you should...

Go to your dermatologist. They’ll take a biopsy of the growth to determine the diagnosis. You should see a derm if you notice a spot on your skin that differs from others, bleeds, itches, or has changed over time. Check your insurance provider’s site to see whether you’re covered for an annual skin care screening. If not, some clinics might offer them for free. And if you’re looking for a dermatologist, check here for options. 


About one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. It’s common — and in many cases, preventable. Wear SPF, find your shade, know your skin, visit your dermatologist, repeat.

theSkimm consulted with dermatologist Dr. Nazanin Saedi for this guide.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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