Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. This cancer usually grows slowly and rarely spreads to other tissues in the body.
Basal cell carcinoma is rarely fatal, but it can cause damage to the nearby tissue. If there is risk of damage, the cancer may need treatment or removal.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The growths invade and take over nearby tissue. It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but is probably a combination of genetics and environment.
Areas of skin that are damaged have a higher risk of cancer. Skin that is regularly exposed to the sun is most likely to develop skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma may also develop in skin that has scars, burns, or inflammatory skin diseases.
Factors that increase the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma include:
radiation therapyA personal history of skin cancer
sunburns, freckling, or long periods of sun exposure
Frequent use of tanning bedsBlonde or red hairBlue or green eyesFair skin that rarely tansA family history of skin cancerTreatment that suppresses the immune system, such as having an organ transplantCertain rare genetic disorders, such as Gorlin’s syndrome
Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma include: A sore that may crust, bleed, or ooze for 3 weeks without healingA raised, red patch that may be itchyA shiny bump that can be pearl-like in appearance or, less often, dark in color, much like a moleA pink growth with a slightly raised border and dip in the middleA patch of skin that seems shiny and tight, much like a scar
The doctor will ask about symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. This includes a thorough examination of the skin and any skin lesions.
Samples of skin lesions can be biopsied and examined under a microscope for the presence of cancer. A biopsy will also help determine the stage and type of the cancer if it is present.
The information will be used to guide treatment and make a prognosis.
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Treatment options include: Mohs micrographic surgery—microscopic surgery that offers the best cure rate for basal cell carcinomaRemoval of the growth with simple surgeryPlastic surgery to repair any cosmetic problems that occur after treatmentElectrodesiccation and curettage—treatment to destroy the lesion
If surgery is not an option, treatment may involve: The use of liquid nitrogen to freeze the growth
Radiation therapyPhotodynamic therapy—the cells absorb an acid that causes them to die when exposed to lightCreams, especially fluorouracil or imiquimod
To reduce the chance of basal cell carcinoma: Avoid spending too much time in the sun.Avoid exposing your skin to the sun between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM standard time, or 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM daylight saving time.Protect your skin from the sun with clothing. Wear a shirt, sunglasses, and a hat with a broad brim.Use broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more on skin that will be exposed to the sun.Use a protective lip balm. Wear sunglasses with 99-100% UV absorption to protect your eyes.Do not use sun lamps or tanning booths.Get regular full-body skin exams by a dermatologist. The doctor will check for moles, freckles, and other growths.
Alberta Provincial Cutaneous Tumour Team. Prevention of skin cancer. Edmonton (Alberta): CancerControl Alberta; 2013 Feb. 27 p. (Clinical practice guideline; no. CU-014). Available at: http://www.guideline.gov/content.aspx?id=48130#Section420. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Basal cell carcinoma. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at:
https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/basal-cell-carcinoma. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Saraiya M, Glanz K, Briss P, et al. Preventing skin cancer.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Wong C, Strange R, Lear JT. Basal cell carcinoma.
Last reviewed March 2016 by James Cornell, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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