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The ABCs of skin cancer

  • Each year, more than 5.5 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer.
  • There are three basic types of skin cancer and each looks a little different.
  • Knowing the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma will help you find this cancer early.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with nearly 5.6 million Americans diagnosed each year. But it is also survivable when caught early.

There are two broad categories for the most common types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma. The two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These three types of cancers are named for the type of skin cell where it starts. Each type of skin cancer looks a little different. Keep reading for the best ways to find skin cancer early.

Basal cell skin cancers

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for 80 percent of the 5.4 million non-melanoma skin cancer cases. This type of cancer appears on sun-exposed areas, such as the face, neck, arms and legs, but it can also appear on the chest and back. Basal cell skin cancer typically develops in people with fair skin, but it can occur in those with darker skin tones.

What to look for:

  • firm, flesh-colored, slightly reddish, pearl-like bump
  • a sore or pimple-like growth that bleeds easily, crusts over and reappears.
  • small, red or pink patch of skin

Squamous cell skin cancers

Squamous cell carcinoma also appears on sun-exposed areas, such as the head, neck, arms, hands and legs. It can also appear on the lips and the rims of the ears. Again, fair-skin people are at higher risk, but squamous cell skin cancer can develop in those with darker skin, too.

What to look for:

  • thickened, red, scaly bumps or wart-like growths
  • may look like an open sore or crusted skin
  • may bleed easily or feel tender
  • may grow quickly over a few weeks.


Melanoma is a deadly form of skin cancer that can spread throughout the body. About 76,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed in Americans each year, and about 7,320 will die from it. Think of melanoma as a good mole gone bad. The ABCDE warning signs can help you find melanoma early:

A – Asymmetry. The mole or lesion is not symmetrical; part of it doesn’t look like the rest.

B – Border. The border of the mole of the lesion is irregular or jagged.

C – Color. The mole has variations in color (black, brown, gray or red) or the color has changed.

D – Diameter. The mole size is greater than 6 mm or the size of a pencil eraser.

E – Evolution. Any change in the mole, such as bleeding, growing, or tenderness.

Not all skin cancers look alike. The signs above are classic symptoms, and some skin cancers may appear different. If you notice any skin changes, particularly a growing, changing or bleeding spot, see your doctor. But don’t worry, not every change or spot is skin cancer; in fact, most new spots are benign and just come with age.

It’s also good to remember that most skin cancer can be prevented by practicing sun-safe techniques, such as avoiding tanning beds, using sunscreen and wearing sun protective clothing.


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