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What's That Spot? A Photo Guide to Skin Cancer

Is it a benign mole or something more? Check out our illustrated guide to basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

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Benign Mole

Skin cancer can show up at any time, anywhere, and in any shape. That's why checking your body for suspicious spots and new moles should be done regularly, says Diane Madfes, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

This is what a benign mole can look like. In the following slides, you'll see three forms of skin cancer and what they might look like in early stages. And remember, even if you don't see your mole here, you should still have it checked out.

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Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. Around 800,000 cases are diagnosed each year, and while it's easy to cure when caught early, 5 to 10 percent of cases are resistant to treatment.

Basal cell carcinoma affects the deepest layer of the epidermis. Instead of metastasizing like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma attacks the surrounding tissue, making it less deadly, but heightening the chance for disfigurement.

Where you'll find it:
On the face, scalp, ears, neck, and other sun-exposed areas.

What to look for:

  • Pearly sheen. "We always look for a pearly, translucent sheen," says Dr. Madfes. In early stages the cancer can be a pink or translucent bump, pearly around the edges. If you look closely, you should be able to see a cluster of individual blood vessels in the center.
  • Depression or laceration. Look for slight indention and raised edges.
  • A sore that doesn't heal. Basal cell carcinoma can also look like a scar or wound. Watch for any skin defect that persists.
  • A pimple that won't go away. Don't ignore it. "Pimples don't last long and shouldn't be around for more than a couple of weeks," say Dr. Madfes. Basal cell carcinoma can also heal and return several times in the same spot.
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    Squamous Cell Carcinoma

    Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer and the second most aggressive. Squamous cells make up most of the epidermis and when cancerous they tend to destroy the surrounding tissue (which is why they can cause disfigurement too), but most cases aren't serious if they are found early enough.

    Where you'll find it:
    On the lower lip, the scalp, the rim of the ear and most other sun-exposed body parts. Plus, watch any areas where you've had burns, scars, sores, etc., because squamous cell carcinoma tends to develop in these weakened spots.

    What to look for:

  • Scaly, rough texture. Three words are often used to describe this form of cancer: crusty, bleeding, and ulcerated. If they apply to your mole, get it checked.
  • Sun-damaged areas. Squamous cell carcinoma is known for popping up around damaged, wrinkly, and freckled skin.
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    Melanoma

    Melanoma is probably the best-known cancer. Not because it's the most common form -- basal cell carcinoma affects 13 times more people -- but because it is the most aggressive and deadly of the group: about 14 percent of people diagnosed with melanoma will die.

    Melanoma is cancer of the melanocyte cells (they create the pigment in skin and give us our moles, freckles, and tans). Once melanocytes become cancerous, they develop on the surface of the skin and, if unchecked, metastasize and spread to other tissues, lymph nodes and, eventually, organs. The good news is that if melanoma is caught before it has metastasized, it's easily treatable.

    Where you'll find it:
    While melanoma, like all cancers, can be found anywhere on your body, men are more likely to find it on their backs, and women are more likely to see it on their legs.

    What to look for:

  • Irregular borders. "The most common melanoma I see has 'scalloped and notched edges,' says Dr. Madfes. "In this picture, you can see the edges almost take the shape of flower petals." Keep an eye out for raised edges, different texture, and lacerations as well.

  • Asymmetry. If you draw a line down the center of a mole, do both sides match? Irregularity in any form is reason enough to call your doctor.
  • Discoloration. Look for any change in color. A mole may darken on one side, in the center or all over. It could be patches of different colors. "If you have blond hair and blue eyes," says Dr. Madfes, "you won't have as much pigment and the mole could turn more red than brown or black."

  • Size. Generally, we should keep an eye on a mole the size of a pencil eraser -- about 6mm in diameter -- but Dr. Madfes says she's also seen cancerous moles a tiny 2mm wide. Her advice? Scan your body carefully and "any time a new mole pops up on an adult, it should be checked."

    For more information and pictures, please visit www.skincancer.org.

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