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May 10, 2021

What is the Difference Between Precancerous Skin Growths and Skin Cancer?

What is the Difference Between Precancerous Skin Growths and Skin Cancer?

If your dermatologist told you that you have some precancerous skin growths, you’re probably wondering what you should do. First, precancerous skin growths are not yet considered cancer. But they may turn into cancer at some point in the future. In both cases, some treatment may be recommended. But the treatment for skin cancer is more extensive and requires an oncologist while precancerous skin growths are usually treated by a dermatologist with recommendations for how to care for your skin to help prevent future growths. Early detection of changes on your skin is one of the most important things you can do. Let’s start by understanding the differences between precancerous skin growths and skin cancer.

Why Does Your Doctor Want to Examine a New Skin Growth?

It may be a little scary when you learn that your doctor wants to take a closer look at “an area of concern” on your skin. However, there are many reasons that this may happen, including:

  • It's new and anything new is worth looking at
  • It's a former mole that's growing or spreading
  • Your skin is irritated or painful
  • Bleeding and inflammation is present
  • The growth won't heal on its own

While a new skin spot may be a little shocking, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is cancerous. It's important to know what signs you should be looking for and what your next steps are moving forward.

What is Precancerous Skin Growth?

Precancerous skin growths develop on skin that has a lot of sun exposure over time without proper protection. While it's not considered cancer yet, it can turn into it in the future. While many forms of precancerous skin growths form after the age of 40, it can happen at an earlier age, especially for those of us living in Florida where we are outside in a lot of sunshine.

Actinic keratosis (AK) is the most common type of precancerous growth. Some people say an AK feels rough, like a spot of sandpaper on the skin. Many oncologists consider AKs as early squamous cell cancers (SCC). If left untreated, AKs are likely to progress into nonmelanoma skin cancer.

If precancerous skin growths are left untreated, they may result in one of the following types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, making up the majority of skin cancer cases in the United States. If found early, it is easily treatable.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is less common but more serious because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body. It can be treated successfully if detected early. The cure rate is more than 90%. However, if it spreads (which happens in 1 to 5% of cases), it is much harder to treat.
  • Melanoma is more severe skin cancer and is harder to treat. In as few as six weeks, it can spread quickly to other parts of the body or internal organs. Lentigo maligna, a flat brown patch with uneven borders, is considered a very early form of melanoma. While usually slow-growing, if left untreated it will likely turn into melanoma skin cancer called lentigo maligna melanoma.

Common Skin Growths to Look For

The most common growths on the skin include moles, freckles, skin tags, and warts.

Moles are brown or black skin growths that can appear anywhere on the skin. Most show up early childhood, and most people have 1- to 40 moles by age 25. Moles usually change very slowly but can become raised or change color. Some never change or even disappear.

Moles present at birth (in about 1% of infants) are slightly more likely to develop into melanoma. Moles larger than a pencil eraser, with an irregular shape or uneven color, are also more likely to become cancerous. However, keep in mind, moles that appear after age 25 and look different than your other moles are also more likely to become cancerous.

Skin tags are a general term for any small flap of tissue that hangs off your skin. Usually harmless, they appear on the neck, chest, armpits, groin area, or under the breasts. They are more common in women who are overweight and in older people. You may become aware of a skin tag when it becomes irritated by clothing or other skin rubbing against it. Skin tags are not cancerous, but it's not uncommon for people to mistake them as precancerous growths.

Brown spots or age spots are usually harmless skin discolorations (usually brown) and are called lentigo. Lentigines are more common among people with fair skin. Usually caused by sun exposure, some spots are hereditary or caused by radiation therapy. They are often clumped together in an area, have smooth borders, and are painless.

Freckles are very common, with small brown spots on the face, neck, chest, and arms. Light-skinned people or those with light or red hair often have more freckles in the summer because of more sun exposure. Freckles are not a health threat.

Warts (Seborrheic keratoses) are usually brown, tan or black, and are found on the chest, back and head. They are more common with age but rarely lead to skin cancer.

Check Your Body for Skin Cancer

Although skin cancer can appear anywhere on your body, most develop on parts of the body that get the most sun, including areas such as:

  • Face
  • Head
  • Neck
  • Arms
  • Legs

Basal cell cancers may have these characteristics, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • It looks like a scar with a flat, firm, yellowish area
  • Reddish patch that may be raised or itchy
  • Shiny, pearl-colored bump that may be tinged with pink, red, blown, or even blue
  • A pink growth with raised edges but a lower center; may have blood vessels that spread out like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
  • An open sore that doesn't heal, or it heals and then comes back, it may bleed, ooze or develop a crusty surface.

Squamous cell cancers may look like this:

  • Rough or scaly red patches, which can bleed or form a scaly crust
  • Raised growths or lumps
  • Open sores that don't heal or sometimes heal and come back
  • Wart-like growths

Melanoma can look like:

  • A new spot or a spot that is changing is size, shape, or color
  • A spot that looks different from other moles, freckles, or warts on your body

Some skin cancers don't include any of these symptoms. Talk to your doctor about any changes or new spots on your skin. These can include:

  • A sore or wound that doesn't heal or heals and reappears
  • Skin pigment that moves into the surrounding skin
  • Redness, swelling, bleeding or oozing
  • Any change in how a spot feels, such as itching, or pain, or tenderness
  • A change in the surface such as becoming scaly, or a lump or small bump

Address Precancerous Skin Concerns Early

Most precancerous growths can be removed by your dermatologist or your general practitioner. If the growth is identified as cancerous, you'll want to be treated by a cancer specialist, known as an oncologist.

Like with other cancers, early detection is important for the best outcomes.. It's necessary to continue self-exams and schedule your annual skin checks with your doctor or dermatologist. In the event that skin cancer is detected, you'll then schedule a visit with an oncologist to start proper treatment.

Your oncologist will remove the skin cancer, if not already removed by the dermatologist, by freezing it (cryotherapy), using a special light (photodynamic therapy), or prescribing medication that you apply at home that can relieve other symptoms of skin cancer such as itching or pain. They will also check to see if cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Best Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer

The best two ways to avoid skin cancer are limiting your time in the sun and getting regular screenings.

Florida receives a lot of sun, so be mindful of the climate that you live in. This means wearing proper clothing and protective gear such as hats and sunglasses when you're out in the sun. As a rule of thumb, seek shade during the peak sunlight hours of 10 AM- 2 PM.

Wear sunscreen with a solar protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Make sure your sunscreen is fresh (less than a year old) to provide maximum protection. Reapply after swimming or heavy sweating. Apply 30 minutes before sun exposure, and be sure you apply enough to completely cover your skin.

Avoid using tanning beds.

If you're over the age of 40, remember to schedule your annual skin screening.

Florida Residents Should Never Skip Skin Cancer Screenings

It's important to schedule your annual skin checks to make sure that your skin is healthy and cancer-free. Even if you only live in Florida for part of the year, you’re still getting more sun than you would if you were up north.

While self-exams are helpful, your doctor can provide a more thorough exam. Schedule your yearly skin screening today to keep your skin's health a priority.

Categories: Skin Cancer