Basal cell carcinoma, or basal cell skin cancer, is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Most skin cancers are basal cell cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma starts in the top layer of the skin called the epidermis. Most basal cell cancers occur on skin that is regularly exposed to sunlight or other ultraviolet radiation. This includes the top of your head, or scalp.
Basal cell skin cancer is most common in people over age 40. However, it occurs in younger people, too.
You are more likely to get basal cell skin cancer if you have:
Light-colored or freckled skin
Blue, green, or grey eyes
Blond or red hair
Overexposure to x-rays or other forms of radiation
Close relatives who have or had skin cancer
Many severe sunburns early in life
Long-term daily sun exposure (such as the sun exposure people who work outside receive)
Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly and is usually painless. It may not look that different from youur normal skin. You may have a skin bump or growth that is:
Pearly or waxy
White or light pink
Flesh-colored or brown
In some cases the skin may be just slightly raised or even flat.
You may have:
A skin sore that bleeds easily
A sore that does not heal
Oozing or crusting spots in a sore
A scar-like sore without having injured the area
Irregular blood vessels in or around the spot
A sore with a depressed (sunken) area in the middle
Signs and tests
Your doctor will check your skin and look at the size, shape, color, and texture of any suspicious areas.
If your doctor thinks you might have skin cancer, a piece of skin will be removed and sent to a lab for examination under a microscope. This is called a skin biopsy. There are different types of skin biopsies.
A skin biopsy must be done to confirm basal cell skin cancer or other skin cancers.
Treatment depends on the size, depth, and location of the skin cancer, and your overall health.
Treatment may involve:
Excision: Cutting out the skin cancer and stitching the skin together
Curettage and electrodesiccation: Scraping away cancer cells and using electricity to kill any that remain
Cryosurgery: Freezing the cancer cells, which kills them
Medication: Skin creams containing imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil for superficial (not very deep) basal cell cancer
Johns surgery: Removing a layer of skin and looking at it immediately under a microscope, then removing many layers of skin until there are no signs of the cancer; Usually used for skin cancers on the nose, ears, and other areas of the face.
Photodynamic therapy: Treatment using light
Radiation may be used if a basal cell cancer cannot be treated with surgery.
How well a patient does depends on many things, including how quickly the cancer was diagnosed. Most of these cancers are cured when treated early.
Some basal cell cancers may return. Smaller ones are less likely to come back. Basal cell carcinoma almost never spreads to other parts of the body.
If you have had skin cancer, you should have regular check-ups so that a doctor can examine your skin. You should also examine your skin once a month. Use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see places. Call your doctor if you notice anything unusual.
Basal cell skin cancer almost never spreads. But, if left untreated, it may grow into surrounding areas and nearby tissues and bone. This is most worrisome around the nose, eyes, and ears.
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if you notice any changes in your skin. You should also call if an existing spot becomes painful or swollen, or if it starts to bleed or itch.
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to reduce your exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet light is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so try to avoid sun exposure during these hours. Protect the skin by wearing hats, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, or pants.
Always use sunscreen:
Apply high-quality sunscreens with sun protection factor (SPF) ratings of at least 15, even when you are only going outdoors for a short time.
Apply a large amount of sunscreen on all exposed areas, including ears and feet.
Look for sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB light.
Use a waterproof formula.
Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply it frequently, especially after swimming.
Use sunscreen in winter, too. Protect yourself even on cloudy days.
Other important facts to help you avoid too much sun exposure:
Avoid surfaces that reflect light more, such as water, sand, concrete, and white-painted areas.
The dangers are greater closer to the start of summer.
Skin burns faster at higher altitudes.
Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers. NCCN Medical Practice Guidelines and Oncology.V.1.2009. Accessed July 15, 2009.
Neville JA, Welch E, Leffell DJ. Management of nonmelanoma skin cancer in 2007. Nat Clin Pract Oncol. 2007;4(8):462-469.
Eigentler TK, Kamin A, Weide BM, et al. A phase III, randomized, open label study to evaluate the safety and efficacy of imiquimod 5% cream applied thrice weekly for 8 and 12 weeks in the treatment of low-risk nodular basal cell carcinoma. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007;57(4):616-621.
Hexsel CL, Bangert SD, Hebert AA, et al. Current sunscreen issues. 2007 Food and Drug Administration sunscreen labelling recommendations and combination sunscreen/insect repellant products. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008;59:316-323.
Lautenschlager S, Wulf HC, Pittelkow MR. Photoprotection. The Lancet [early online publication]. May 3, 2007.
Ridky TW. Nonmelanoma skin cancer. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007;57:484-501.
Wood GS, Gunkel J, Stewart D, et al. Nonmelanoma skin cancers: basal and squamous cell carcinomas. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Churchill Livingstone;2008:chap 74.
Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.