Detecting non-melanoma skin cancer

Photo of a man (PantherMedia / Fabrice Michaudeau)

In order to detect non-melanoma skin cancer, you can either check your skin for abnormalities yourself or have a doctor examine it. Skin cancer can be treated more effectively if it is discovered before it spreads to other parts of the body.

It can be worrying if an area of your skin changes in size, shape, color or looks abnormal. A lot of people know that changes like this could be a sign of skin cancer. But most unusual-looking areas of skin are harmless.

The older you get, the more your skin changes, and new moles or age spots (also known as liver spots or solar lentigines) may develop. This is a normal part of aging. So some people decide to wait and keep an eye on any skin abnormalities.

Carefully checking your skin on a regular basis is a good way to notice any changes, or any wounds that don't heal as quickly as usual. If they don't go away within about four weeks, it's best to have a doctor take a closer look.

In Germany, statutory health insurers cover the costs of skin cancer screening every two years in people aged 35 and over.

Where can basal cell carcinoma arise and what does it look like?

Basal cell carcinoma (basal cell cancer) typically looks like a shiny, see-through or waxy bump at first. There may be smaller bumps around the edge of it. You can sometimes see blood vessels beneath the uppermost layer.

If there is a sunken area in the center of it and the area is moist and sore, an ulcer or wound has developed. This is a sign that the tumor is growing. The wound typically doesn't heal – not even after a few weeks – or it keeps healing and then starts bleeding again.

Photo: Non-melanoma skin cancer might look like thisNon-melanoma skin cancer might look like this (Photographer: Kelly Nelson, M.D.; Source: Other forms of basal cell carcinoma are characterized by a clearly defined, shiny, reddish or pink scaly area of skin. But basal cell carcinoma can also be dark (strong pigmentation), or it might look like a pale scar. This makes it harder to identify it as cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma usually arises on areas of skin that have been exposed to a lot of sun, such as the face and neck. But it is also sometimes found on the torso or legs, or even on the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, chest, in your armpits or genital area.

What does squamous cell carcinoma look like?

It's not always easy to identify squamous cell carcinoma or tell it apart from basal cell carcinoma. It may look like a scaly, reddish or yellow-brown area of skin, or a crusty, scabby wound that bleeds from time to time. The affected area is usually quite sensitive and often has scaly parts as well.

Squamous cell carcinoma can develop inside a scar or chronic wound, but it arises in healthy skin too. It is often found on the edge of the ears or on the face, including the lips.