What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer?

Often, skin cancers do not cause bothersome symptoms until they have grown quite large. However, it may be possible to see or feel skin cancers in their early stages.

Skin cancer symptoms may differ by skin cancer type:

  • Basal Cell Carcinomas
    These vary, ranging from flat, firm, pale areas to open sores that either don’t heal or keep coming back.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinomas
    This type of skin cancer may appear as round or scaly red patches that might crust or bleed, or as raised or wart-like growths.
  • Melanoma Skin Cancers
    The most important warning sign of melanoma is a new spot on the skin, or a spot that is changing in size, shape or color. Another warning sign is a spot that looks different from the other spots on the skin.
  • Merkel Cell Carcinomas
    This type of skin cancer can be found on areas of the skin exposed to the sun, including the face, neck, arms, and legs, but can occur anywhere on the body. It often first appears as a single pink, red, or purple shiny bump that usually doesn't hurt.

The ABCDE Rule for Melanoma

The ABCDE rule is a useful guide to the common signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: For example, one half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges of the spot are irregular or blurred.
  • Color: The color varies and may include different shades of brown or black, or even patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than the size of pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: The spot is changing in size, shape or color.

Early recognition of possible melanoma skin cancer symptoms can result in earlier diagnosis, as well as more treatment options and a higher likelihood of cure.

Distinguishing Benign Moles from Melanoma

To find melanoma early, when it is most treatable, it is important to examine your skin on a regular basis, and become familiar with moles, and other skin conditions, in order to better identify changes. Certain moles are at a higher risk for changing into malignant melanoma. Large moles that are present at birth (congenital nevi), and atypical moles (dysplastic nevi), have a greater chance of becoming malignant.

Recognizing changes in your moles, is crucial in detecting malignant melanoma at its earliest stage. The warning signs are:

Normal mole / melanoma



Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing asymmetry


When half of the mole does not match the other half

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing border irregularity


When the border (edges) of the mole are ragged or irregular

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing color variation


When the color of the mole varies throughout

Photo comparing normal and melanoma moles showing diameter


If the mole's diameter is larger than a pencil's eraser

Photographs Used by Permission: National Cancer Institute

Melanomas vary greatly in appearance. Some melanomas may show all of the above characteristics, while others may show only a few, or even none, of these changes. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

If you’ve had melanoma or have other risk factors, it is important to perform monthly skin self-examinations and make sure to go for frequent skin cancer screenings, as recommended by your doctor.