Different Types of Skin Cancer

People sometimes mistakenly use the terms melanoma and skin cancer interchangeably. But they aren’t the same!

Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers but causes a much higher percentage of skin-cancer deaths. It is the most serious type of skin cancer and develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin — the pigment that gives skin its color.

Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to any cancer that forms in the basal, squamous, or Merkel cells of the skin.

It is important to understand the basics of where melanoma develops and ways to identify it early.

Where Does Melanoma Develop?

Melanomas can develop anywhere on your body, but most often in areas that have exposure to the sun:

  • Back
  • Legs
  • Arms
  • Face

Melanomas can also develop in areas of your body that have little or no exposure to the sun:

  • Palms
  • Soles
  • Scalp
  • Genitals
  • Between toes

In rare cases, melanoma can develop in the eyes, inside the nose, and even the throat.

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What Causes Melanoma?

The exact cause of all melanomas isn’t clear, but exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning beds increases your risk of developing certain types of melanoma. Limiting your exposure to UV radiation can help reduce your risk of melanoma.

The ABCDE Method

There are certain markers to look for when it comes to spotting possible melanoma and differentiating it from other forms of skin cancer. Check your moles every month or two for changes and use the helpful ABCDE mnemonic tool as a guide for warning signs.

  • A is for asymmetry. Most melanomas are asymmetrical (not round or oval like a common mole).
  • B is for border. Melanoma borders are often uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges.
  • C is for color. Multiple colors on the mole are a warning sign. Though benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan, pink, or black.
  • D is for diameter. Ideally, melanoma detection will happen early when it’s small. But if a lesion becomes larger than the size of a pencil eraser, consider it a warning sign.
  • E is for evolving. Look for changes over time, such as growth in size or changes in color or shape.

Another warning sign that a normal mole may have changed to melanoma is what dermatologists call an “ugly duckling.” This comes from the fact that most normal moles on a person’s body tend to resemble one another. If one is noticeably different from the others, it stands out like an ugly duckling by comparison.

What Are the Other Types of Skin Cancer?

In addition to melanoma, the other three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and Merkel cell cancer. These cancers start in the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. Each has their own distinct visual markers.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cells are found in the lower part of the epidermis. These cells constantly divide to form new cells to replace others that wear off the skin’s surface.

Basal cell cancer is the most common form of cancer and usually appears as:

  • Open sores.
  • Red patches.
  • Pink growths.
  • Shiny bumps.
  • Scars.
  • Growths with slightly elevated, rolled edges.

Basal cells grow slowly, are mostly curable, and cause minimal damage when caught and treated early. They rarely spread beyond the original site but can become disfiguring and pose a danger if not dealt with properly up front.

Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cells are the second most common form of skin cancer. When caught early, it is highly curable.

These are flat cells located near the surface of the skin that shed continuously as new ones form. Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as:

  • Scaly red patches.
  • Rough thickened warts.
  • Open sores.
  • Wart-like raised growths with a central depression.

Although cancerous cells typically appear on skin exposed to the sun, they can occur in other parts of the body, including the genitals. Patients who have undergone a solid organ transplant or who are on medications that suppress the immune system are at particularly high risk for cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma.

Merkel cell carcinoma

This extremely rare variety occurs when malignant cancer cells form in the skin. Intense sun exposure well as a weak immune system can increase the risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma.

It usually appears as a single painless lump on sun-exposed skin such as the head, neck, arms, and legs.

Protect Yourself from Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers

It’s important to know how and where each type of skin cancer tends to appear. But you should also understand who is most likely to develop skin cancer, especially melanoma.

Although significantly less common than the other types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most troublesome and potentially life-threatening. It is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early.

The average age at diagnosis is 65, and melanoma is more common in men. About one-third of melanoma begins in existing moles, but the rest start in normal skin.

The most important way to avoid developing all types of skin cancer — including melanoma — is to minimize exposure to sun, especially if you have fair or light skin. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with SPF (sun-protection factor) 30 or higher and reapplying about every two hours.

Speak to your doctor about other warning signs for melanoma and stay aware of any changes in your skin.

American Academy of Dermatology. Melanoma. AAD.org. Link

American Cancer Society. What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer? Cancer.org. Link

Julie K. Karen, MD, Ronald L. Moy, MD. Basal Cell Carcinoma Overview. Skin Cancer Foundation. Link

NIH: National Cancer Institute. Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma. Cancer.gov. Link

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