Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can basal and squamous cell skin cancers be found early?

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can often be found early, when they are likely to be easier to treat.

Skin self-exam

You can play an important role in finding skin cancer early. Learn the patterns of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any changes.

It’s important to check all over your skin, preferably once a month. Self-exams are best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror for areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs.

All areas should be examined, including your palms and soles, scalp, ears, nails, and your back. (For a more thorough description of a skin self-exam, see our document Skin Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection and the booklet Why You Should Know About Melanoma.) Friends and family members can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.

Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you and ask your doctor to look at areas that may be hard for you to see.

Spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor promptly. Any unusual sore, lump, blemish, marking, or change in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of skin cancer or a warning that it might occur. The skin might become scaly or crusty or begin oozing or bleeding. It may feel itchy, tender, or painful. Redness and swelling may develop.

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can look like a variety of marks on the skin. The key warning signs are a new growth, a spot or bump that’s getting larger over time, or a sore that doesn’t heal within a couple of months. (See the next section, “Signs and symptoms of basal and squamous cell skin cancer,” for a more detailed description of what to look for.)

Exam by a health care professional

As part of a routine cancer-related checkup, your doctor or other health care professional should check your skin carefully. He or she should be willing to discuss any concerns you might have about this exam.

Regular skin exams are especially important for people who are at high risk of skin cancer, such as people with reduced immunity (for example, those who have had an organ transplant) or people with conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP). Talk to your doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.


Last Medical Review: 10/21/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014