3 Most Common Types of Skin Cancer

Dermatologist examining patient in clinic for skin cancer, closeup

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States with an estimated one in five Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime. First and foremost, it’s important to know that certain factors may increase your risk, but skin cancer can affect people of all races and skin colors. Secondly, you should take the time to educate yourself about the most common types of skin cancer and some signs that you should look for.

1. Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, as well as the most common of all cancers. There are an estimated 4.3 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. However, despite its prevalence, when treated early it is nearly 100% preventable and rarely spreads. Basal cell carcinoma most often appears on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun such as the face, head, neck and arms, though it can form anywhere on the body. Signs to look out for include: 

  • An open sore that won’t heal, bleeds or oozes; or a sore that remains open for a few weeks only to heal up and bleed again;
  • A reddish patch or irritated area that may or may not crust; These usually appear on the face, chest, arms or legs. While they can itch or hurt, these patches don’t always cause discomfort;
  • A shiny and waxy looking bump or growth that appears pearly or clear; In most cases, these are pink, red or white, but they can also be tan, black or brown.
  • A slightly elevated pink growth with a raised border and crusted indentation in the center; you may even see tiny blood vessels develop as it slowly enlarges;
  • A white or yellow scar-like area may be a sign of an invasive BCC that is larger than its surface appearance lets on; The borders are often poorly defined with the skin having a shiny and tightly drawn.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, basal cell carcinoma has the potential to invade the surrounding tissue and grow into the nerves and bones, causing damage and disfigurement.

2. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer with more than 1 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It is also most often diagnosed on areas of the body damaged by UV rays from the sun or tanning beds, but can also occur anywhere on the body including inside the mouth, the bottoms of the feet or on the genitals. Unlike basal cell carcinoma, it can spread to other parts of the body. 

The signs and symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin include a: 

  • Firm, red nodule
  • Flat sore with a scaly crust
  • New sore or raised area on an old scar or ulcer
  • Rough, scaly patch on the lip that may evolve into an open sore
  • Red sore or rough patch inside the mouth
  • Red, raised patch or wartlike sore on any other area of the body including the genitals

3. Malignant Melanoma

Although it is not the most common type of skin cancer, malignant melanoma is often the one that you hear the most about. It is the most rapidly increasing form of malignant tumor in the United States. In the last 10 years, the number of new invasive melanoma cases diagnosed annually increased by 54%. 

Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes–the pigment-making cells of the skin. Sometimes it develops as a new mole (cluster of melanocytes) or as a part of a pre-existing mole. As with the other types of skin cancer, malignant melanoma is highly curable when diagnosed and treated early. However, it has the potential to metastasize (or spread) to other areas of the body such as the lung or liver, which can make it extremely difficult to cure. 

The leading cause of malignant melanoma is sun exposure. On average, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns.

The most important warning sign of melanoma is a new mole on the skin or a mole that changes in size, shape or color. 

The American Cancer Society recommends using the ABCDE rule: 

  • Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • Color: The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Schedule a Screening

All three of these types of skin cancer have a greater likelihood of successful treatment and survival when they are detected early. An initial skin cancer screening includes a full body examination of your skin to inspect any areas of concern. This exam will be used as a baseline for future screenings. If you have never had a skin cancer screening or it has been more than a year since your last screening, call Blue Ridge Dermatology at (919) 781-1050 to schedule an appointment.