Skin Cancer Screening & Diagnosis

Each year in the United States, new cases of skin cancer outnumber the combined new cases of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers.

One in five Americans develop skin cancer in their lifetime, usually caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Having lighter skin, numerous moles or a family history of skin cancer increase your risk.

Most Common Types of Skin Cancer

  • Non-melanoma is a malignant tumor originating in skin cells. “Malignant” describes the cancer’s ability to spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer.

More than 4 million cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed in the United States each year. About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are related to exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

  • Melanoma is a less common, but more serious, skin cancer originating in the skin cells that produce pigment, or melanin. Melanomas can look like moles and some actually develop from moles. Most are black or brown, although in some cases melanomas are pink, red, purple, blue or white.

Who Needs Skin Cancer Screening?

You’re at risk for skin cancer if you have pale skin, experience excessive or unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, have a family history of skin cancer, experienced severe sunburn or have numerous or unusual moles.

Your doctor will perform a full-body, professional exam to look for signs of skin cancer. You can also conduct regular self-exams to check for anything unusual. You should look for:

  • Any change, particularly the size or color of a spot, mole or growth
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Oozing, bleeding or scaliness
  • Color that spreads beyond the border of a growth
  • Tenderness, itching, pain or other new sensations

To check your skin, take a photo of unusual lesions and watch for changes. A spot could be melanoma if it’s black or multicolored, bigger than a pencil eraser, changes over time or has an irregular border. A rough patch or a bump that bleeds could be basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer.

On most people, a mole that is either flat or raised appears an even shade of brown, tan or black. Whether round or oval, they’re usually less than about a quarter-inch in diameter.

If you find a suspicious mole or lesion on your body, dermatologists suggest following the ABCs:

  • Asymmetry. If you draw a line through the mole, the two halves do not match.
  • Border. On early melanoma, the borders tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.
  • Color. Different shades of brown, tan or black is a warning sign. A melanoma may also become red, blue or another color.
  • Diameter. Melanomas usually are larger than the size of a pencil eraser, or a quarter inch. They may be smaller when first detected.
  • Evolving. Any change in size, shape, color or elevation or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting should be investigated.

Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute