Skin Cancer Explained

The Early Stages Of Skin Cancer

If you’ve noticed some­thing on your skin, you may be won­der­ing whether it’s a harm­less spot or nor­mal sun dam­age – or poten­tial­ly, a sign of ear­ly stage skin cancer.
MoleMap Team
January 25, 2024

We explain some of the signs to look for here, and include some ear­ly stage skin can­cer photos.

Please note, this is a gen­er­al guide only – and you should always seek pro­fes­sion­al advice. But there is one sim­ple rule to remem­ber. It’s def­i­nite­ly time to see your skin spe­cial­ist if you notice a spot on your skin that:

• looks dif­fer­ent from your oth­er spots (see ​“the ugly duck­ling” rule)

• changes in appear­ance (see the ABCDE rule)

• itch­es or bleeds

And of course, pre­ven­tion and reg­u­lar screen­ing is your skin’s best chance against devel­op­ing skin cancer.

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What does ​‘nor­mal’ skin look like?

Some com­mon skin disorders

Here are some oth­er com­mon skin con­di­tions you may notice, either in your own skin or that of oth­ers. Often these tend to occur as we age.

Some of these con­di­tions are com­plete­ly harm­less – while oth­ers can devel­op into cancer.

Solar lentig­ines

You may notice flat brown spots on the face and hands that appear in mid­dle-age. These are com­mon­ly known as ​‘age spots’ or ​‘liv­er spots’, but the med­ical name for them is solar lentig­ines. They occur in peo­ple who have pre­vi­ous­ly spent a lot of time exposed in the sun.

com­mon skin disorders

• Flat patch of coloured skin

• Very com­mon, espe­cial­ly age 40+

• Can vary in size

• Often on the face and back of the hands

• Do not usu­al­ly devel­op into cancer

Seb­or­rhoe­ic keratosis

Harm­less warty spots (med­ical name seb­or­rhoe­ic ker­atoses) are also very com­mon in age­ing skin. They usu­al­ly start appear­ing from age 30 – 40 onwards, and it’s esti­mat­ed 90% of adults over 60 have one or more.

Seb­or­rhoe­ic keratosis

• Wart-like lesions, often dry sur­face with cracks

• Can appear any­where on the body

• May be itchy

• More com­mon after age 40

• Do not lead to cancer

Solar ker­ato­sis

Solar ker­ato­sis (also known as actinic ker­ato­sis) is a rough, scaly spot found on sun-dam­aged skin. It’s classed as a ​‘pre­can­cer­ous’ skin dis­or­der because with­out treat­ment, it could poten­tial­ly turn into can­cer. Some­times squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma can arise in an area of severe sun dam­aged skin where there are many solar ker­ato­sis.2

If you think you have solar ker­ato­sis, it’s impor­tant to seek treat­ment straight away.

Solar ker­ato­sis

• Always on sun-exposed areas

• Super­fi­cial, rough, scaly areas

• Not ten­der or sore

• Red­dened lesions, occa­sion­al­ly pigmented

• Could become cancerous

What is ear­ly stage skin can­cer?

Your skin’s top lay­er – the epi­der­mis – is made up of skin cells that your body con­tin­u­al­ly makes and sheds.

Sim­ply put, skin can­cer is when these cells turn abnor­mal and start grow­ing out-of-con­trol. They mul­ti­ply rapid­ly and form malig­nant tumours.

Skin can­cer in ear­ly stages gen­er­al­ly starts with a change to a freck­le or mole. It may be a new spot, or one that changes size, shape or colour. It might be a sore that won’t heal, or a patch of skin that bleeds. It may also appear as a lump or nod­ule, an ulcer, or a chang­ing lesion.

When we talk about skin can­cer, we talk about two types – melanoma and non-melanoma skin can­cer. The two main types of non-melanoma can­cer are basal cell car­ci­no­ma, and squa­mous cell carcinoma.

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What does basal cell car­ci­no­ma look like?

Basal cell car­ci­no­ma (BCC) accounts for about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

It often appears as a change in the skin, such as a growth or a sore that doesn’t heal. Basal cell car­ci­no­ma can occur in peo­ple of any sex or age.3

basal cell car­ci­no­ma

Symp­toms of BCC may include:

• Waxy small raised lesions (papules) with a depressed centre

• Ulcer-like appear­ance or pearl-like and translucent

• A ten­den­cy to bleed

• Red and scaly, ooz­ing or crust­ed areas

• Raised borders

• Black-blue or brown areas

What does squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma look like?

Squa­mous Cell Car­ci­no­ma (SCC) is less com­mon, account­ing for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers.

squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma

Signs of squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma may include:

• A firm, red nod­ule, that is often sore when you squeeze it laterally

• A flat sore with a scaly crust

• A new sore or raised area on an old scar or ulcer

• A rough, scaly patch on your lip that may evolve to an open sore

• A red sore or rough patch inside your mouth

• A red, raised patch or wart-like sore on or in the anus or on the genitals

What does melanoma look like?

We cov­er here the two most com­mon types of melanoma. (To learn more, see our arti­cle on the four types of melanoma).

Super­fi­cial Spread­ing Melanoma (SSM)

This is the most com­mon type of melanoma, account­ing for two-thirds of cas­es in Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

Superficial Spreading Melanoma

• Gen­er­al­ly found on the arms, legs, chest and back

• May be a new spot, or grow in an exist­ing one

• May be raised or flat

• Can look like a freck­le that’s grow­ing sideways

• Can be a range of colours (includ­ing white)

Nodu­lar Melanoma

This is the sec­ond most com­mon type and accounts for about 15% of melanoma in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. It can grow more quick­ly than oth­er melanomas, which makes ear­ly diag­no­sis even more critical.

Signs to watch for include:

• A dome-shaped, firm lump

• Larg­er size than most moles (often 6mm-10mm or more in diameter)

• More often found on the chest, back, head or neck

• When grow­ing, can become red rather than brown or black

• Bleed­ing or ooz­ing is a com­mon symptom

• Can feel itchy or stinging

Nodular Melanoma

The ​“ugly duck­ling” test and the ABCDE rule

See­ing ear­ly stage skin can­cer pho­tos of dif­fer­ent moles and spots can help ​‘train your eye’ for doing your own self-checks. It helps you know what to look for.

For instance, you might hear skin experts talk­ing about the ​“ugly duck­ling rule”. Most moles and freck­les on your body tend to be the same or sim­i­lar-look­ing, this makes it fair­ly easy to spot one that’s not like the oth­ers. It might be one large dark mole among a bunch of small­er lighter moles, for instance. Or a sin­gle light-coloured mole in a sea of large dark ones.



It’s good to be aware of the signs of ear­ly stage skin can­cer, and we thor­ough­ly rec­om­mend check­ing your own skin (and the skin of your loved ones). But no mat­ter how vig­i­lant you are, the signs of skin can­cer are very dif­fi­cult to see with an untrained eye — espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly stages.

That’s why using a reg­u­lar screen­ing ser­vice is such a wise deci­sion. At MoleMap, we pro­vide options and free spot check for all needs and bud­gets. If there are 1 – 2 moles you want checked out, our Skin Check is a great option. To mon­i­tor any changes in your skin over time, our Skin Check+ and Full Body MoleMap cap­ture a full pho­to­graph­ic record of your skin.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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