“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.”