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Can Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers Be Found Early?

With skin self-exams and skin checks by a health care professional, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can often be found early. When skin cancers are found early, they are likely to be easier to treat.

Skin self-exam

Although the American Cancer Society does not have guidelines for the early detection of skin cancer, many doctors recommend checking your own skin regularly, preferably once a month.

Knowing your own skin is important to finding skin cancer early. Learn the patterns of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any changes.

Skin self-exams are best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror for areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs.

Examine all parts of your body, including the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, as well as your nails, scalp, ears, and back. A spouse, partner, or close friend or family member can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.

To learn more, see How to Do a Skin Self-Exam.

Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you and ask your doctor to look at areas that may be hard for you to see.

Any spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be checked by a doctor. Any unusual sore, lump, blemish, marking, or change in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of skin cancer or a warning that it might occur. The area might become red, swollen, scaly, crusty or begin oozing or bleeding. It may feel itchy, tender, or painful.

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can look like a variety of marks on the skin. The key warning signs are a new growth, a spot or bump that’s getting larger over time, or a sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks. (See Signs and Symptoms of Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancer for a more detailed description of what to look for.)

Skin exam by a health care professional

Some doctors and other health care professionals do skin exams as part of routine health check-ups.

Having regular skin exams is especially important for people who are at high risk of skin cancer, such as people with a weakened immune system (for example, those who have had an organ transplant) or people with conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP). Talk to your doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.

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 journalists, 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.

National Cancer Institute. Skin Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. 2023. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/hp/skin-screening-pdq 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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