Mohs Surgery
Dermatologist Scottsdale AZ
Scottsdale Dermatologist Dr. LaTowsky

Skin Cancers and Precancers

Skin cancer statistics
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with more new cases occurring than combined incidence of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers each year. Did you know:

  • More than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year?
  • An estimated one in five Americans will get skin cancer?
  • Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of the color of their skin?

Many cases of skin cancer can be prevented by protecting the skin from excessive sun exposure and avoiding tanning beds. With early detection, skin cancer is highly treatable.
What are the types of skin cancer, and what do they look like?
Skin cancer comes in three forms and, depending on the form, can be fatal.  Below are facts about each type of skin cancer.  In all cases, early detection is key to limiting the risks associated with each type of skin cancer.

  1. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer
    • Frequently develops in people with fair skin but people with darker skin can also have a BCC
    • Looks like a flesh-colored, pearl-like bump or a pinkish patch of skin
    • Develops after years of frequent sun exposure or indoor tanning
    • Is common on the head, neck, and arms, but can form anywhere on the body, including the chest, abdomen, and legs
    • Can invade surrounding tissue and grow into the nerves and bones, causing damage and/or disfigurement
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second most common type of skin cancer
    • Most likely in people with light skin but can develop in people with darker skin
    • Often looks like a red firm bump, scaly patch, or a sore that heals and then re-opens
    • Tends to form on skin that gets frequent sun exposure, such as the rim of the ear, face, neck, arms, chest, and back
    • Can grow deep in the skin and cause damage and disfigurement
    • Can spread to other areas of the body
  3. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer
    • Frequently develops in a mole or suddenly appears as a new dark spot on the skin
    • Being diagnosed and treated early is critical
    • Knowing the ABCDE Warning Signs of melanoma can help you find it early

ABCDE Warning Signs


If you draw an imaginary line through your mole and the two halves do not match, this anomaly could be a warning sign for melanoma.


The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped, notched, or irregular.


Having a variety of colors is another warning sign for melanoma. Several different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, white or blue.


Melanomas can be larger in diameter than a pencil eraser tip (6mm) but may sometimes be smaller when first detected.


Common, benign moles look the same over time. Be on the alert when a mole starts to evolve or change in any way. If you are concerned your mole is changing, please schedule an appointment right away for a skin exam. Any change in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting can point to danger and should be taken seriously.

What are precancers?
Precancers or actinic keratosis (AK) are a skin condition caused by chronic sun damage and cause scaly, rough or bumpy spots on the skin that can appear red or brown. AKs are not cancer but can sometimes change into SCC, the second most common form of skin cancer, so they are important to treat. Having one or more painful sunburns in one’s lifetime raises the risk of getting AKs.

AKs are most common in people who spend a lot of time in the sun, are fair-skinned and burn easily.  AKs are generally found on sun-exposed areas of the body, such as the:

  • Scalp, face and neck
  • Tops of ears
  • Backs of the hands and forearms
  • Legs or feet, especially in women
  • Lips (actinic cheilitis)

AKs must be treated to ensure they do not turn into SCCs.  Treatment is done in-office, where the AK is frozen off using liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy). After the treatment, the area where the AK was will be red, irritated and/or swollen for seven to 10 days, and sometimes, a blister will form.  No special care is needed but harsh products such as benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or tretinoin (Retin-A) should be avoided to minimize irritation and support faster healing.

What are some skin cancer prevention tips?
Protecting skin from the sun and ultra-violet (UV) light is the best way to prevent or minimize the risk of skin cancer.  In addition, regular self-evaluations of the skin as well as annual skin examinations by a dermatologist are critical to early diagnosis and treatment. 

Some tips to prevent skin cancer as well as AKs, sun damage, wrinkles and early aging of the skin:

  • Do not burn. Avoid overexposure to the sun and do not use tanning beds.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher generously and reapply at least every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
  • Cover up. Wear protective clothing (labeled with a UPF rating) such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, sun gloves and wide-brimmed hats sunglasses with UVA/ UVB protection, even when you are in a car.
  • Seek shade when the sun’s UV rays are most intense (10am to 4pm).
  • Pay attention to the UV Index when planning outdoor activities to avoid overexposure to the sun.

What should I expect during a skin cancer examination?
Annual skin cancer screenings are recommended, and for those patients with a personal or familial history of precancers or skin cancer, more frequent examinations may be recommended.  Screenings include a full body exam, which takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes.  Screenings are done in the privacy of an exam room, and the patient is undressed but covered with a gown. 

The provider will examine each part of your skin and may use a special magnifying lens with a light called a dermatoscope to examine certain marks or lesions.  In addition to the examination, the provider will ask you about your skin health history as well as that of your family; what medications you are taking, as some medications cause sensitivity to the sun and UV lights; and your habits relative to tanning beds, outdoor activities or work; and sun protection practices. 

If something abnormal is found, a biopsy will likely be completed during the appointment.  This procedure is quick and simple; a local anesthetic is used, and a small tissue sample is taken, which is sent to have analyzed under a microscope by a dermatopathologist.  The purpose of the biopsy is to diagnose the condition; it is not a treatment.  If biopsy results reveal skin cancer, the remainder of the growth will be removed with an excisional procedure during a second appointment.

If you have concerns about your skin cancer risk or if you have not had your annual skin exam, please contact us to schedule an appointment. 

Dermatologist Scottsdale

Dermatology Associations