5 Signs of Skin Cancer Other Than an Abnormal Mole

There are other less obvious signs of skin cancer, too.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends performing regular skin checks at home. But do you know what you're looking for during those self-tests?

One of the most obvious signs of skin cancer is an abnormal-looking mole. A spot that has grown or changed since the last time you checked is one of the most common signs of melanoma. Per the AAD, you should use the ABCDEs of melanoma to check your moles, which include the following:

  • Asymmetry
  • Uneven borders
  • Color
  • Diameter
  • Evolution

However, those are not the only warning signs.

The three major types of skin cancer—basal and squamous cell carcinomas and melanoma—often look different. And some rare types of skin cancer might be mistaken for other skin conditions entirely.

Here's what you need to know about checking your skin the next time you give your largest organ a once-over.

At a Glance

See a dermatologist if you notice a spot on your skin that:

  • Differs from the others
  • Changes
  • Itches
  • Bleeds

A Translucent, Waxy Bump

Sometimes skin cancer shows up as a clear or skin-colored bump.

"A lot of people don't know what it is at first and think it's a pimple or a bug bite and give it a chance to heal," Susan Y. Chon, MD, associate professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told Health

According to Dr. Chon, a translucent, waxy bump could be an early-stage basal or squamous cell skin cancer. The bump may never even hurt, bleed, or cause other symptoms. 

"It doesn't have to be dramatic. But it's not supposed to be there," added Dr. Chon.

A hard bump on your eyelid may signify rare skin cancer called sebaceous gland carcinoma, which starts in oil glands. And a shiny or firm nodule under the skin—usually on your head, neck, or torso—could be a sign of rare skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC).

Other causes of clear or skin-colored bumps on your skin include:

  • Molluscum contagiosum: This is a benign, mild skin disease characterized by lesions (growths) that may appear anywhere on the body. 
  • Warts: These are benign skin growths that appear when a virus infects the top layer of the skin. Often skin-colored and feel rough, but they can be dark (brown or gray-black), flat, and smooth.
  • Dermatosis papulosa nigra (DPN): This is a benign epidermal growth that presents as hyperpigmented or skin-colored bumps. DPN may develop on the face and neck beginning in adolescence.
  • Keratosis pilaris: These are rough-feeling bumps of different colors, including skin-colored and white, that can appear anywhere except on your palms and soles.

A Scaly Patch

It's easy to brush off a bit of scaly skin as eczema or dryness. But if you moisturize or treat dry patches with over-the-counter (OTC) ointments, and it doesn't go away, your rash could be a sign of basal or squamous cell carcinoma.

"It's just a little patch of skin that's kind of scaly and not healing," said Dr. Chon, adding that the patch might also grow slowly.

Other possible causes of scaly patches include:

  • Seborrheic dermatitis: This is a prevalent skin disease that causes a rash, swollen and greasy appearance, and white or yellowish crusty scale on the surface.
  • EczemaThis group of skin conditions causes inflamed, irritated, and often itchy skin.
  • Psoriasis: This condition causes thick, scaly patches of skin.

Anything Crusty or Oozing

Dr. Chon explained a "classic" basal cell carcinoma lesion oozes, crusts over, and won't heal. 

"It's like a chronic wound. The center doesn't hold together," added Dr. Chon.

Dr. Chon said you should bring any spots that bleed, ooze, or crust to your dermatologist's attention.

Other possible causes of crusty or oozing lesions include:

  • Weeping eczema: This chronic disease is characterized by dry, itchy skin that can weep clear fluid when scratched.
  • Impetigo: This skin infection is caused by one or both of the following bacteria: Group A Streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. Symptoms include red, itchy sores that break open and leak a clear fluid or pus for a few days.
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): This infection may look like a bump on the skin that may be red, swollen, warm to the touch, painful, filled with pus, or draining.

Red or Purple Lesions

MCC is a rare skin cancer that looks harmless, is painless, and is often mistaken for other common skin lesions. MCCs can also appear as blue, red, or purple nodules. 

The bumps grow quickly over a few weeks to months. Additionally, MCCs often develop on the head or neck, places that have received a lot of sun over the years.

Another rare cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, can also appear as discolored skin. Kaposi sarcoma starts in blood vessels but can result in red, purple, or brown tumors or patches on the skin. The cancer can also develop on mucous membranes, like the inside of your mouth. 

Kaposi sarcoma usually only occurs in people with weak immune systems, including people who are positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Other possible causes of red or purple lesions include:

  • Insect bites
  • Sores
  • Cysts
  • Styes
  • Pimples

Anything That Doesn't Go Away

Sometimes other skin cancer symptoms aren't all that obvious, according to Dr. Chon. But one telltale sign is that whatever spot you notice doesn't go away. 

"People get little bumps all the time from inflammation or bug bites, but they go away in a few weeks," said Dr. Chon. "Most things should flatten out and get gradually better and better."

Skin cancer, said Dr. Chon, doesn't. Instead, "it persists" and may eventually become symptomatic. Those spots are worth bringing up to your dermatologist.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. And it’s also one of the most preventable cancers. Skin cancer is highly treatable when detected early.

If you habitually check your skin often, you are more likely to notice changes. Monthly self-checks can be a good frequency but check with your dermatologist for their recommendation.

If you find a spot on your skin that could be skin cancer, make an appointment to see a dermatologist immediately. Note that the area doesn’t have to itch, bleed, or feel painful. Often a dermatologist can treat early skin cancer by removing the cancer and some of the nearby skin.

A Quick Review

While you should still perform regular skin checks for moles or lesions with the ABCDEs of melanoma, skin cancer can appear differently on your body.

Familiarize yourself with the different forms of skin cancer, and check yourself regularly. You should see your dermatologist immediately if you notice a spot on your skin that differs from the others, changes, itches, or bleeds.

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  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma.

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  14. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Psoriasis: Overview.

  15. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Eczema (atopic dermatitis).

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