How to Identify Skin Cancer Warning Signs

Did you know that the most common form of cancer in the United States is skin cancer? According to experts, roughly 1 in 5 people in this country will develop skin cancer at some point during their lifetime. In other words, about 20% of people in the United States will develop this condition, making the need for identifying skin cancer warning signs important.

How to Identify Skin Cancer Warning Signs

Anyone who suspects they have any form of cancer should seek medical attention right away.

The 3 basic forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), malignant melanoma (melanoma), and squamous cell cancer (SCC). Which symptoms are present can depend on the type of skin cancer the person has, although there can be some overlapping signs. So, just what are the common signs that someone has developed the most common form of cancer in the US?…

10. White Waxy Lumps

SkarmoutsosV (CC BY-SA 4.0)

According to the CDC, changes in skin are the most recognizable symptoms of cancer of the skin. One such change is the appearance of white, waxy-looking lumps on the skin.

What do the lumps look and feel like?

These bumps can look a little different, depending the individual, their skin tone, and the stage of cancer that they’re at. However, these lumps might indicate cancer if they:

  • Are white or yellow in color
  • Have a waxy appearance
  • Have no clearly defined border
  • Look similar to a scar
  • Are flat
  • Feel firm

What type of cancer is it?

These peculiar lumps can indicate non-melanoma skin cancer, specifically BCC.

9. Brown Scaly Patch

James Heilman, MD (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The technical term for these darkly colored splotches of skin are actinic keratosis (AK), or solar keratosis. While they themselves are not initially cancerous, they have the potential to become cancerous.

What are AKs?

These pre-cancerous growths can be:

  • Scaly, rough, and/or dry
  • Range in color from reddish/pinkish to brown
  • Crusty or bleed easily

What type of cancer is it?

AKs have the potential to develop into non-melanoma cancer, specifically SCC.

8. Mole Changes

National Cancer Institute (NCI),

People who already have moles and notice abnormal changes should practice caution and seek medical attention, as these changes could indicate cancer.

What changes indicate cancer?

Experts have created a handy way to quickly assess if mole changes are likely to be cancerous: ABCDE.

  • Asymmetry – Does the mole look asymmetrical? Are there different areas of this skin patch that look dissimilar?
  • Border – Are there changes to the border of the mole? Is it becoming “jagged”?
  • Color – Is the mole changing color? Are these color changes uneven?
  • Diameter – Is the mole growing? Does it now exceed the size of a pea?
  • Evolving – Is the mole evolving or has evolved noticeably within the past few months or weeks?

What type of cancer is it?

ABCDE changes typically indicate melanoma, which experts typically consider to be more serious than non-melanoma cancers.

7. Wart-like Growths

Kelly Nelson, National Cancer Institute (NCI);

When new lumps and spots appear on the skin, it’s time for closer inspection.

What are these growths like?

This particular cancer symptom can present as:

  • Rough and thick
  • Like a wart
  • Crusty and/or bleeding

What type of cancer is it?

Experts typically associate these growths with SCC, a non-melanoma cancer.

6. Open, Unhealing Sores


Everyone experiences bumps and bruises. When these injuries fail to heal properly, an underlying medical condition could be to blame.

What are these sores like?

When someone notices new, open sores that never seem to heal, heal incredibly slowly, or keep coming back, cancer could be to blame. Further, these sores may ooze and eventually crust over, giving them a crusty appearance.

What type of cancer is it?

These sores typically indicate SCC and BCC, both of which are non-melanoma cancers.

5. Rough, Scaly Red Patches

Dermatology Branch; National Cancer Institute;

Red patches are common indicators of many medical conditions, ranging from bug bites to cancer.

What are these patches like?

While it can be hard to distinguish these patches from other dermatologic conditions, cancerous swatches of skin tend to be:

  • Rough and scaly
  • Reddish in color
  • Crusty
  • Bleeding

What type of cancer is it?

These red patches are usually indicative of non-melanoma cancer.

4. New Lumps or Other Abnormal Growths

Kelly Nelson, National Cancer Institute (NCI);

Any time a new growth appears, it’s time to take a closer look.

What do cancerous lumps look and feel like?

Once again, it can be hard to distinguish these growths from other skin conditions. However, cancerous skin growths tend to be:

  • Lumpy or raised
  • Sometimes raised along the edges with a dip in the interior
  • Can feel incredibly tender or have a rough surface
  • May be fragile and ooze or bleed upon contact

What type of cancer is it?

These growths are common in cases of SCC.

3. Pink Growths

Unchanged from © DermNet New Zealand (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

This symptom can look similar to other skin conditions, which means concerned individuals will have to closely inspect suspicious growths and consult a licensed medical provider.

What are these growths like?

Distinctively cancerous pink growths can:

  • Be pinkish or reddish in color
  • Have raised perimeters and lower centers
  • Have centers that with branching blood vessels that look “like the spokes of a wheel”

What type of cancer is it?

This particular type of growth is seen with BCC.

2. Eye Changes

Left – Jonathan Trobe, M.D. – University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center (CC BY 3.0).
Right – Maliflower73/

The neck, face, and arms are all common locations for skin cancer to develop. In rare cases, though, skin cancer can develop in the eyes.

What are these changes like?

Skin cancer-related eye changes include:

  • Partial vision loss
  • Blurry vision
  • Dark spots in the iris, the colored part of the eye surrounding the pupil
  • Dark spots in the conjunctiva (mucus membrane that lines the eyelids) or whites of the eye

What type of cancer is it?

These changes can indicate eye melanoma, or ocular melanoma. Two major types of this cancer are uveal melanoma and conjunctival melanoma.

1. Ugly Ducklings

Skin Cancer Foundation;

The ugly duckling isn’t just a nursery rhyme character, but also a term experts use to define one standout symptom of skin cancer.

What is an “ugly duckling”?

An ugly duckling is, as the name implies, an odd patch of skin that does not look like other moles or freckles. In other words, it is a patch of skin that looks odd.

What type of cancer is it?

Like the ABCDE method, the “ugly duckling sign” can indicate melanoma.

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