Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2013

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

People with a basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma may experience the following symptoms. Sometimes, people with non-melanoma skin cancer do not show any of these symptoms or signs. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer. The skin features that people with basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma frequently develop are listed below. If you are concerned about a symptom or skin feature, please talk with your doctor.

Changes in the skin are the main warning sign for skin cancer. Each type of skin cancer can appear differently, so it is important to talk with your doctor when you notice a change in your skin.

For basal cell carcinoma, two or more of the following features may be present:

  • An open sore that bleeds, oozes, or crusts and remains open for several weeks
  • A reddish, raised patch or irritated area that may crust or itch, but rarely hurts
  • A shiny pink, red, pearly white, or translucent bump
  • A pink growth with an elevated border and crusted central indentation
  • A scar-like, white, yellow, or waxy area, often with a poorly defined border

See pictures of these features of basal cell carcinoma. (Please note this takes you to a separate website.)

Squamous cell carcinoma can often crust, bleed, and appear as:

  • A wart-like growth
  • A persistent, scaly red patch with irregular borders that may bleed easily
  • An open sore that persists for weeks
  • An elevated growth with a rough surface and a central depression

See pictures of these signs of squamous cell carcinoma. (Please note this takes you to a separate website.)

Some types of skin cancer spread along the nerves and can cause itching, pain, numbness, tingling, or a feeling like there is ants crawling under the skin. Other signs may include lumps or bumps under the skin in areas such as the neck, armpit, or groin. Talk with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Your doctor will then ask you questions to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis. This may include when you first noticed the skin feature, how long it has been there, and any other symptoms you may be experiencing.

If skin cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms and side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Early detection: Finding skin cancer early

Earlier detection and recognition of skin cancer is the key to improving the chance for successful treatment. Recognizing early warning signs of skin cancer and doing regular self-examinations of your skin will help find skin cancer early when the disease is highly curable.

Self-examinations should be performed in front of a full-length mirror in a brightly lit room. It helps to have another person check the scalp and back of the neck. In people with fair skin, non-melanoma skin cancer most often begins on skin that has frequently been exposed to the sun. However, in people with darker skin, squamous cell carcinoma occurs primarily in areas infrequently exposed to the sun, such as the lower legs.

Include the following steps in a skin self-examination:

  • Examine the front and back of the entire body in a mirror, then the right and left sides, with arms raised.
  • Bend the elbows and look carefully at the outer and inner forearms, upper arms (especially the hard-to-see back portion), and hands.
  • Look at the front, sides, and back of the legs and feet, including the soles and the spaces between the toes.
  • Part the hair to lift it and examine the back of the neck and scalp with a hand mirror.
  • Check the back, genital area, and buttocks with a hand mirror.

Talk with your doctor if your hairdresser or barber has noticed a suspicious lesion on your scalp or beard or if you find any of the following during a self-examination:

  • A growth on the skin that matches any symptom listed above
  • New growth on the skin
  • A suspicious change in an existing mole or spot
  • A sore that doesn't heal within two weeks

The next section helps explain what tests and scans may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select Diagnosis, or you can select another section, to continue reading this guide.