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Definition

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It grows slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Causes

Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Over time, the cells can form into a growth or tumor. The growths invade and take over nearby tissue. The reason why this happens is not known. Genetics and the environment may play a role.

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in people who are fair-skinned. Other things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Having skin that is damaged due to scars, burns, or skin diseases
  • Childhood sunburns, freckling, or long periods of sun exposure
  • A personal or family history of skin cancer
  • Frequent use of tanning beds
  • Treatment that suppresses the immune system, such as having an organ transplant
  • History of radiation therapy
  • Certain rare genetic disorders, such as Gorlin syndrome

Symptoms

Problems vary from person to person. Common ones are:

  • A sore that may crust, bleed, or ooze for more than 3 weeks without healing
  • A raised, red patch that may be itchy
  • A shiny bump that may look pearl-like or dark in color, like a mole
  • A pink growth with a slightly raised border and dip in the middle
  • A patch of skin that seems shiny and tight, much like a scar

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on your skin.

A skin biopsy may be taken to look for signs of cancer.

Skin Biopsy
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Treatment

Basal cell carcinoma is rarely deadly. The goal of treatment is to lower the risk of damage to nearby tissues.

The main way this is treated is by removing the growth. This can be done with:

People who cannot have surgery may have the growth treated with:

  • Curettage and electrodesiccation
  • Radiation therapy
  • Liquid nitrogen to freeze the growth
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Medicated creams, such as fluorouracil or imiquimod

Prevention

The risk of this problem can be lowered by:

  • Avoiding sun exposure
  • Protecting skin from sun exposure with clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen
  • Avoiding indoor tanning methods
RESOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology
https://www.aad.org

Skin Cancer Foundation
https://www.skincancer.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Cancer Society
http://www.cancer.ca

Canadian Dermatology Association
https://www.dermatology.ca

REFERENCES:

Basal cell carcinoma. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/cancers-of-the-skin/basal-cell-carcinoma. Accessed November 24, 2020.

Basal cell carcinoma of the skin. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/basal-cell-carcinoma-of-the-skin. Accessed November 24, 2020.

Cameron MC, Lee E, et al. Basal cell carcinoma: Epidemiology; pathophysiology; clinical and histological subtypes; and disease associations. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019 Feb;80(2):303-317.

Skin cancer types: basal cell carcinoma overview. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/basal-cell-carcinoma. Accessed November 24, 2020.

Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed November 24, 2020.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD  Last Updated: 4/20/2021