“Skin cancer can look like many things; therefore people can go long periods of time without recognizing that they have a skin cancer,” says Dr. Steven Musick, MD, a board certified dermatologist who runs Musick Dermatology, LLC, in Swansea, IL, which provides state-of-the-art medical and surgical care for all disorders of the skin, hair and nails.
Not only can skin cancer mimic many benign conditions such as pimples and skin barnacles, but a tumor can develop in areas that are difficult to inspect or that are not considered during a person’s self-skin exam.
For example, it would be difficult for one to examine their scalp unless they’re bald. Inside the ears is another hard-to-visualize location.
And then there are areas that people wouldn’t think to check, such as between their butt cheeks, inside their belly button, between their toes, the soles of their feet and even the pupils of their eyes.
Yes, melanoma can grow in the pupils and go unnoticed for long periods of time.
Melanoma, along with squamous cell carcinoma, can also pop up internally, including within the genitals, mouth, nose and lungs.
Another factor that influences how long a person can have skin cancer and not know it is where they live.
If they live in a Third, and especially Fourth, World nation, they can have a basal cell carcinoma that goes undiagnosed for many years due to lack of skin cancer awareness campaigns and adequate skin cancer screenings.
However, this type of tumor will continue progressing, though very slowly; it won’t stop growing just because it’s untreated.
If not treated it may eventually cause dramatic disfigurement yet will very rarely metastasize in even the most neglected cases.
Squamous cell carcinoma—which will likely metastasize if left untreated—begins insidiously, appearing first as a faded pink and very flat patchy area on the skin.
A person can go for years without knowing that this usually slow growing skin cancer is progressing.
Many people even in industrialized nations do not check their skin monthly and never get clinical exams – and may even be fully aware of a new lesion yet get so used to it that it never dawns on them that it’s malignant.
There may be the “It can’t happen to me” mindset, along with those who are afraid of what the doctor “might find,” and those who avoid doctors because they don’t have health insurance or because they are cognitively impaired.
Often, people will notice something growing on their face or scalp but chalk it up to older age or benign damage from the sun.
It’s possible to have melanoma for several years without knowing it, because some kinds of melanomas grow rather slowly and spread out laterally before they begin burrowing vertically into deeper layers of skin tissue.
Skin Cancer Undiagnosed for
Over 10 Years
“The patient had neglected his illness for more than 10 years,” says a case report in the International Open Access Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (March 2014).
The patient was a man, 48, living in a U.S. city. “The medical attention was sought out due to the insistence of a family member,” continues the paper.
The cancer was basal cell carcinoma that had grown to 10 centimeters on his scalp. Somehow this patient didn’t mind living with an ulcerating, oozing and bleeding growth on his head.
Had he not sought treatment, he could have lived many more years (BCC metastasis is exceedingly rare) barring death from an unrelated cause such as a heart attack or car accident.
With that all said, there is no data on what the record is (as far as years living without knowing) for how long a person lived with an undiagnosed skin cancer.
Certainly you can imagine there must be many cases of people all over the world, living in undeveloped societies with scant medical care, let alone skin cancer awareness, who’ve been living for over 20 years with a slowly growing “bump” or patch. This would describe basal cell carcinoma.
But a person will not get away for too long with an undiagnosed melanoma, as it WILL spread and cause symptoms of that spread, such as respiratory problems (mets to the lungs) or ongoing severe headaches (mets to the brain).
Dr. Musick says that the following
are common ways that skin cancer shows up:
• red bump that bleeds easily
• a scab or wound that just won’t heal
• slowly enlarging pink or red patch of skin
• a dark irregularly-bordered bump or spot
“Most skin cancers are painless and, in fact, cause no symptoms whatsoever,” says Dr. Musick. “A careful skin examination by a qualified dermatologist is the best way to detect skin cancer.”