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Basal and squamous cell skin cancers often don't cause bothersome symptoms until they have grown quite large. Then they may itch, bleed, or even hurt. But often they can be seen or felt long before they reach this point.
Basal cell cancers (BCCs) usually develop on areas exposed to the sun, especially the face, head, neck, and arms, but they can occur anywhere on the body.
In people with lighter-colored skin, these cancers can appear as:
BCCs are less common in people with darker skin color. When they do occur, they often have many of the same features (such as being translucent or shiny, or having raised edges), although they are often darker in color.
Basal cell cancers are often fragile and might bleed after shaving or after a minor injury. Sometimes people go to the doctor because they have a sore or a cut from shaving that just won’t heal, which turns out to be a basal cell cancer. A simple rule of thumb is that most sores or cuts heal within a week or so.
In people with lighter-colored skin, squamous cell cancers (SCCs) tend to occur on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ear, neck, lip, and back of the hands. These cancers are less common in people with darker skin color, in whom they’re more likely to appear in areas that aren’t often exposed to the sun.
Less often, SCCs can form in the skin of the genital area. They can also develop in scars or skin sores elsewhere.
These cancers can appear as:
Both basal and squamous cell skin cancers can also develop as a flat area showing only slight changes from normal skin.
These and other types of skin cancers can also look different from the descriptions above. This is why it’s important to have a doctor check any new or changing skin growths, sores that don’t heal, or other areas that concern you.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Christensen SR, Wilson LD, Leffell DJ. Chapter 90: Cancer of the Skin. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Lim JL, Asgari M. Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC): Clinical features and diagnosis. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cutaneous-squamous-cell-carcinoma-cscc-clinical-features-and-diagnosis on August 23, 2023.
Wu PA. Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical features, and diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/epidemiology-pathogenesis-clinical-features-and-diagnosis-of-basal-cell-carcinoma on August 23, 2023.
Xu YG, Aylward JL, Swanson AM, et al. Chapter 67: Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
Last Revised: October 31, 2023