Skin cancer can be scary, largely because it’s so common. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 9,500 people are diagnosed with one of the many types of skin cancer every single day, and it’s the most frequently-occurring type of cancer in the country. That said, it’s also one of the most preventable. There are different symptoms people can identify in its early stages, from discolored moles to lesions that won’t heal, which helps patients catch their cancer while it’s most treatable. But what about the most common of skin sensations, itching? Does skin cancer itch?
A 2018 study from Temple University School of Medicine suggests that this might the case. Researchers looked at the medical records of 268 patients who were confirmed to have skin cancer lesions between 2010 and 2011 and reported that nearly 37 percent of painful skin cancer lesions were accompanied by itching.
Although pain has often been a common warning sign for skin cancer, the addition of itching can make skin checks more confusing. After all, itching can also be a sign of something as minor as dry skin.
“I’ve been practicing for 27 years, and I’ve never had someone come into my office to show me an itchy lesion that has turned out to be skin cancer,” New York City board-certified dermatologist Janet Prystowsky, MD, says. “I think this study is way overestimating that. In fact, skin cancer is usually without symptoms — that’s what leads to delay in diagnosis. Itching is a serious symptom that we need to pay attention to, but it’s not as common as this study suggests.”
So what exactly is the deal with skin cancer and itching? We spoke to a handful of dermatologists on what signs to look out for, and how to detect early signs of skin cancer.
Meet the experts:
- Janet Prystowsky, MD, PhD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
- Hamza Bhatti, DO, a board-certified dermatologist and MOHS surgeon at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
- Micole Tuchman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
- Lian Mack, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Glam Derm and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Does skin cancer itch?
Even though skin cancer can itch at times, itching alone isn’t necessarily a direct sign of skin cancer. Instead, this itching may be accompanied by other symptoms such as lesions or moles.
“While itching is not the primary symptom of skin cancer, and most cases of skin cancer are not accompanied by itching, sometimes early signs of nonmelanoma skin cancer can include itching, in addition to mild pain and tenderness,” explains Micole Tuchman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Though Lian Mack, a board-certified dermatologist at Glam Derm and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, notes that skin cancers can affect nerve endings in the skin that may cause an itching sensation, it is quite uncommon. “Typically, skin cancer lesions are asymptomatic, i.e. they are not painful, tender, or itchy,” she says, noting that the sensation of an itch is a subjective feeling that is patient-dependent.
What type of skin cancer causes itching?
There are certain skin cancers that are more likely to be linked with an itching side effect than others. “Different skin cancers have more of a tendency to itch than other skin cancers,” confirms Hamza Bhatti, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and MOHS surgeon at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New Jersey and New York. As previously mentioned, non-melanoma skin cancers like squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are more likely to be linked to itching, even though it is still uncommon.
“There are different subtypes of [squamous cell carcinoma] skin cancers,” Dr. Bhatti explains. “There’s the superficial type, there is invasive, there’s one called keratoacanthoma. In my experience, I’ve seen [keratoacanthoma] associated more with itching because it’s a more rapidly growing one.”
Dr. Mack further explains this: “Squamous cell carcinoma has a higher risk for peri-neural invasion compared to basal cell carcinoma, and may be slightly more likely to result in itching.”
Itchy or not, what does skin cancer look like when it starts?
Since itching isn’t an automatic sign of skin cancer there are some other changes on the skin that you should keep an eye out for, such as newly formed pink scaly patches, a pink bump, or papule with scattered broken blood vessels or a solitary lesion that won’t heal. “In dermatology, we often refer to this as a band-aid sign,” Dr. Mack says. “Patients come to the office with a lesion covered with a Band-aid, placed to prevent the lesion from oozing blood.”
There’s also the handy key of remembering your ABCDEs, a system that helps people give themselves skin checks. Dr. Bhatti walks us through the questions you should be asking yourself when inspecting any moles on your skin:
- A is for asymmetry: “Does one side [of the mole] look like the other?'”
- B is for borders: “Are the borders more defined, or are they like irregular with jagged edges or are they disappearing?”
- C is for color: “Are there two different colors? Is the color changing over time? Is it getting darker?”
- D for diameter: “s it getting bigger or smaller?”
- E is for evolving: “Has that mole always looked that way?”
These physical symptoms and changes in the skin provide a much more accurate identification of skin cancer. So if you experience itching accompanied with any of the above, you should see a dermatologist so they can take a closer look and determine the cause.
“To an untrained, eye skin cancers can be very difficult to differentiate from completely benign lesions,” Dr. Tuchman says. “That’s why it’s so important to see a dermatologist for yearly exams and visit your dermatologist more frequently should new lesions or changing lesions occur.”
That being said, skin cancers are very treatable when caught early. As long as you stay on top of your yearly exams and remain aware of any changes on your skin, you’re likely in good shape.
“Skin cancer is the most preventable cancer out there right now,” says Dr. Bhatti. “If you’re able to catch it super early and catch it in state zero, or even possibly an early stage one, you have [an extremely high] cure rate just by cutting it out and getting clear margins and assessing the patient after more closely for skin exams.”