Symptoms of skin cancer

Common skin cancer, also known as basal cell carcinoma, can occur anywhere on the body, but the vast majority are localized in the head and neck area. Often this will be a wound that won’t heal or a lump (tumor) that is bleeding or oozing. An experienced dermatologist will easily recognize the symptoms of skin cancer, but sometimes skin cancer can be mistaken for a benign skin disease.

The most common form of skin cancer is so-called nodular basal cell carcinoma. Typically, this type of skin cancer is seen on the face and is characterized by a pearlescent nodule, possibly with ulceration. Another type of skin cancer typically seen on the body, especially on the upper arms, is superficial basal cell carcinoma. It shows up as red and scaly changes in the skin. This form can be mistaken for eczema or psoriasis, so it’s important to have the area examined by a dermatologist.

A less common form of common skin cancer is the so-called infiltrative types. They have a more aggressive growth pattern and the risk of relapse of this type is higher. They appear as scar tissue-like changes where it can be difficult to distinguish the skin cancer from the surrounding tissue.

Common skin cancer is not melanoma

It is important to distinguish melanoma (malignant melanoma) from regular skin cancer. Read more about the symptoms of melanoma.

What symptoms should you be aware of?

  • Non-healing skin wounds (especially on the face)

  • Red, scaly lesions that won’t go away

  • Mother-of-pearl bud

What does skin cancer look like?

We’ve collected images with examples of what skin cancer can look like.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. The incidence of this type of skin cancer is still on the rise. In the last 10 years alone, the number of new cases has doubled. According to the Danish Cancer Society, there were 12,000 new cases in 2014, equally divided between men and women.

Skin cancer is a slow-growing and always curable disease. Most commonly, skin cancer develops on the face, ears, neck and upper chest, but it can occur anywhere on the body. The disease is most commonly seen in the older population, but in recent years there has been an increase in younger people. The lifetime risk of developing skin cancer is 30% and 20% of all new cases occur in people under the age of 50.

The risk of developing this cancer increases with age and the amount of sun exposure, both in the sun and in tanning beds. This is why skin cancer predominantly develops in sun-exposed areas. Other risk factors include people with fair skin, who burn easily in the sun. Previous radiation therapy or ingestion of the metal arsenic (psoriasis remedy), as well as prolonged exposure to carcinogens such as soot and tar are also a risk. Finally, evidence suggests that people with compromised immune systems or patients on immunosuppressive drugs develop skin cancer 10-15 years earlier than normal.

Once diagnosed with skin cancer, there is a 40% chance of developing skin cancer elsewhere on the body. Therefore, patients with skin cancer are recommended annual check-ups with a dermatologist.

Skin cancer is an invasive tumor that destroys tissue locally, but only very rarely spreads (metastasizes). However, there is a non-negligible risk of tumor recurrence (relapse) after treatment. Half of these relapses occur within the first 3 years. The risk of recurrence depends on tumor size, tumor type, tumor location, treatment choice and the competence of the treating physician.

The diagnosis is made based on a tissue sample (biopsy, curettage).

There are several types of treatments for skin cancer. These include curettage/abrasion and creams (both of which are particularly used for low-risk tumors), as well as surgical procedures (such as Mohs surgery) and X-rays. Mohs surgery offers the greatest certainty that the tumor has been removed in healthy tissue, and thus offers the lowest recurrence rates. After five years, the recurrence rate for first-time skin cancer is 1-3% with Mohs surgery treatment. For recurring cases, it is 5-10%. Mohs surgery is considered the “gold standard” for treating high-risk BCC in the head and neck region, as it provides the safest and most cosmetically optimal result.

  • Over the past 30 years, the number of skin cancer cases has tripled for Danish women and more than doubled for Danish men.
  • Around 40 Danes are diagnosed with skin cancer every day – that’s more than a school class. In total, more than 14,600 new cases of the disease are registered every year.
  • Over 121,000 Danes have been treated for the disease. The number is probably double, as many cases go unrecorded.
  • If you’ve had common skin cancer once, there’s a risk of the disease reappearing in a new location. That’s why most people who have had the disease go for regular check-ups with a dermatologist.
  • Skin cancer is not a fatal disease. However, removing common skin cancer can leave unsightly scars. Many people get the disease on the ears, nose and around the eye, where scars can be troublesome.