Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2018

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. Use the menu to see other pages.

People with a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or Merkel cell cancer may experience the following symptoms. Sometimes, people with non-melanoma skin cancer/keratinocyte carcinoma do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be a different medical condition that is not cancer.

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. The skin features that frequently develop are listed below.

For basal cell carcinoma, 2 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 that this will take 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

  • A raised growth with a rough surface and a central depression 

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

Merkel cell cancer often occurs as:

  • Painless, firm, shiny lumps on the skin

  • These lumps can be red, pink, or blue 

Some types of skin cancer spread along the nerves. If this happens, it 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.

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This may include when you first noticed the skin feature, how long it has been there, and any other symptoms you may be experiencing. This is to help figure out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

For most cases of skin cancer, removing the cancer with surgery or using a topical treatment will cure the disease. If the skin cancer cannot be easily treated, relieving symptoms will be 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 the symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.