12 Silent Signs of Skin Cancer You’re Probably Ignoring
Did you nick yourself shaving—or is it skin cancer? A pesky pimple—or melanoma? Watch for these sneaky signs of skin cancer.
Moles in disguise
While you might focus on brown or dark moles when you think of skin cancer, there are actually several types that come with their own type of mole or sign. The major types of skin cancer are basal cell, squamous, and melanoma. Basal cell is the most common form (and skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, by the way)—there are 4.3 million cases in the United States each year, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports. Squamous cell is second, hitting another million Americans yearly. Melanoma is the rarest—but the deadliest—type of skin cancer; one in 19 people who get a diagnosis of melanoma will die. (By comparison, one in roughly 300 people die of basal cell or squamous cancers.)
The tricky part is recognizing trouble, says surgical and cosmetic dermatologist Adele Haimovic, MD, an associate at the office of Lance H. Brown, MD. Some melanoma moles can actually be skin-colored or pink—they’re known as amelanotic melanomas. This kind of melanoma is a challenge to recognize because we’re inclined to think it’s just a harmless bump. That’s why it’s important to have regular skin checks by a dermatologist.
If you find yourself bleeding after shaving, it may not be clumsiness: “Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma can bleed after shaving or other minor trauma, and sometimes spontaneously bleed with no known inciting event,” says Dr. Haimovic. “This is because skin cancer leaves the skin more fragile than healthy skin.” If you find yourself bleeding in the same spot, get it checked out. Read about the 8 ways your body changes after just one sunburn.
Your family tree
About one in ten people who are diagnosed with melanoma have a family member with a history of melanoma. Familial malignant melanoma refers to families in which two or more first-degree relatives, such as a mother, father, siblings, or children, have melanoma. Familial malignant melanoma increases melanoma risk by 50 percent.
A pimple that doesn’t go away
“Basal cell carcinoma may look like a translucent, skin-colored, or pink pimple that does not resolve or recurs in the same spot,” says Dr. Haimovic. Usually, pimples go away on their own in two to three weeks; if one sticks around longer than that, it should be evaluated by a dermatologist. Make sure you know the skin cancer myths you need to stop believing.
A dark band on your nail
If you notice a fairly defined, dark vertical line on your fingernail or toenail, you might think you banged the nail—no big deal. Take a closer look: “If the band has multiple different shades of brown and black, that is a concern. Also, if the width of the band is greater than three millimeters, that is another concerning feature,” says dermatologist Steven Wang, MD, founder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare.
One of your moles is not like the others
“A reddish-colored or light-brown-colored mole in a sea of dark moles is what dermatologists call ‘the ugly duckling sign,’” says Dr. Wang. Basically, one of the moles doesn’t belong in the group. If you have a dominant mole pattern on your back and it’s disrupted by a darker, larger mole, it could be an ugly duckling sign. Another example: You have two patterns of small and dark moles on your back, but there’s a smaller, pale mole. The only way to confirm if this is malignant melanoma is to have it checked by a dermatologist. Here’s what you need to know about mole mapping.
You had PUVA treatments
Psoralen and UV-light treatments (PUVA) are a type of ultraviolet radiation treatment for severe skin conditions such as psoriasis and dermatitis. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found an increased risk of malignant melanomas 15 years after a patient’s first PUVA treatment. In fact, patients who had 250 or more treatments had five times the risk of people who had never gotten PUVA. Follow-up research published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed the risk and indicated that the risk of melanoma increases over time.
You had an HPV infection
Some forms of human papillomaviruses (HPV) that affect the genitals and anus may increase the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancers. In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the participants with antibodies against certain HPVs had a higher risk of developing nonmelanomas. Make sure you know these 51 things that dermatologists want you to know about skin cancer.
Your immune system is weak
People with weakened immune systems because of disease or certain types of treatment can have a higher risk of skin cancer. HIV/AIDS and lymphoma patients may have an elevated risk, for example; so do people getting chemotherapy or other medications that suppress immunity.
You have the XP gene
Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) is a rare inherited disorder. According to the National Library of Medicine, it’s estimated that about one in one million people in the United States and Europe have it. People with the disorder have an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays from the sun: The gene limits skin cells’ ability to repair damage to their DNA. According to the American Cancer Society, people with XP have a high risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers when they are young—when the condition usually reveals itself—especially on the eyes and sun-exposed areas. Take a look at these 10 sneaky places skin cancer may be lurking that aren’t on your skin.
You work with industrial chemicals
People who work in the fields growing produce, in steel and iron foundries, or in coal and aluminum production plants have a higher risk of skin cancer, according to a study published in BioMed Research International. Also at risk are people who work with industrial carcinogens such as arsenic—used in pesticides—and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—which are in raw paraffin, creosote, chimney soot, asphalt, shale oil, tar and pitch, and even diesel-engine exhaust fumes.
You already had a squamous cell tumor
Just because you’ve had a squamous cell tumor removed doesn’t mean you can relax—if anything, you should be more concerned. Squamous cell carcinoma recurrence is relatively common on the ears, nose, and lips; it typically occurs during the first two years following surgery. “During your regular skin check, your dermatologist will examine old scars to make sure there is no evidence of the cancer returning,” says Dr. Haimovic. Be aware of these 9 surprising skin cancer risks.
Dermatologists recommend that you do a monthly self-check of your moles and any other skin abnormalities to help catch trouble early. This will help you keep tabs on any changes. Be on the lookout for moles or lesions that changed in color (including fading), shape, or size, or if you’re experiencing pain, itching, or bleeding in these areas, Dr. Wang advises. Although skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, it is usually curable if detected early. Here are some other places you may be ignoring when you check for signs of skin cancer.