Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2024

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the changes and medical problems that can be a sign of non-melanoma skin cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

People with a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or Merkel cell carcinoma may experience one or more of the following symptoms or signs. Symptoms are changes that you can feel in your body. Signs are changes in something measured, like taking your blood pressure or doing a lab test. Together, symptoms and signs can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, people with non-melanoma skin cancer do not have any of the symptoms and signs described below. Or, the cause of a symptom or sign may be a 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 link 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 link will take you to a separate website.)

Merkel cell carcinoma 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 are ants crawling under the skin. Other signs may include a lump or bump 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 try to understand what is causing your symptom(s). They may do an exam and order tests to understand the cause of the problem, which is called a diagnosis, in addition to asking some questions. These may include when you first noticed the skin feature, how long it has been there, and any other symptoms you may be experiencing.

For most cases of skin cancer, removing the cancer with surgery or using a topical treatment will cure the disease. In more complicated cases, a multidisciplinary team of doctors will meet with a patient to discuss different types of treatments to develop a plan with the best chances of curing or controlling this disease (see Types of Treatment).

Particularly with advanced skin cancer, relieving symptoms will be an important part of cancer care and treatment. Managing symptoms may also be called "palliative and "supportive care,” which is not the same as hospice care given at the end of life. This type of care focuses on managing symptoms and supporting people who face illnesses. You can receive palliative and supportive care at any time during cancer treatment. Learn more in this guide’s section on Coping with Treatment.

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. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.