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Signs and Symptoms of Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

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.

What basal cell carcinoma looks like

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:

  • Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown, or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a wheel
  • Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
  • Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back

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.

What squamous cell carcinoma looks like

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:

  • Rough or scaly red (or darker) patches, which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
  • Wart-like growths

Other ways basal and squamous cell carcinomas can look

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.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as 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

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