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How to spot non-melanoma skin cancer

Doctor inspecting moles on a person

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Canada and around the world. It’s caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can come from the sun or from indoor tanning lamps.

Although they’re common, the good news is that skin cancers are also very preventable and treatable, especially if caught early.

“There are two main types of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma – and they present very differently,” says Dr. Christian Murray, dermatologist at Women’s College Hospital. “Melanomas usually looks like a mole, a blotchy, black or dark brown spot. Look for existing moles, bumps or freckles that have changes or new spots that are irregular.”

“Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common type of skin cancer by far,” says Dr. Murray. “They usually appear the same colour as your skin as spots that don’t heal. They grow slowly over time and can be present for months or even years before people notice them.”

What to look for

  • non-melanomas can look like a spot, pimple, or bump on your skin that doesn’t go away
  • a sore that doesn’t heal over a period of weeks or months
  • a rough, scaly growth or patch of skin that may bleed or crust
  • over time they can get larger or the skin can appear more irritated
  • non-melanomas can sometimes itch or hurt, but more commonly are asymptomatic until they start to bleed

Although skin cancers can develop anywhere on the body, Dr. Murray says non-melanomas most often appear in sun exposed areas – 75 per cent of them develop on the head and neck with the nose being the most common site.

Finding and treating skin cancer as early as possible is key. Dr. Murray stresses the importance of being proactive and checking your skin regularly. If you notice any changes or symptoms, have it assessed by your doctor.

Skin changes often show over weeks or months, so if you have a spot that isn’t healing or you’re concerned Dr. Murray recommends taking a photo to help keep track of changes. Your provider can assess it a month or two later for any changes.

Age matters

Age is a risk factor when it comes to skin cancer. People who are older are more likely to get skin cancer because of their lifetime exposure to sun’s harmful UV radiation.

“As we age, having an annual skin exam with your healthcare provider can be helpful as a reference – if something changes later or you aren’t sure, you have a baseline to compare to,” says Dr. Murray.

For those whose risk of skin cancer is higher than usual – such as people with lots of irregular moles, those who have had skin cancer in the past, and those with fair skin and/or light coloured eyes – Dr. Murray recommends seeing a dermatologist.

“If you have a spot that’s not healing and you have other risk factors for cancer then you should certainly get the area checked out sooner rather than later."

This information is provided by Women's College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Mar. 25, 2019.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital