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Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer. This type of cancer often looks like a pink waxy bump that may bleed following minor injury. There may be irregular blood vessels on its surface and its center may be sunken in. Large basal cell carcinomas may have oozing or crusted areas.

Basal cell carcinomas typically occur on sun-exposed skin of the face, ears, neck and trunk but may also occur on the arms or legs. Basal cell carcinomas grow slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). However, if left untreated, they can become locally invasive and destroy surrounding muscle, bone and nerves causing significant disfigurement and functional problems.

There are several subtypes of basal cell carcinoma. Some are more aggressive than others. The subtype of basal cell carcinoma is identified by skin biopsy and examination under a microscope.


What causes basal cell carcinoma? The most common cause of basal cell carcinoma is ultraviolet light (UV), specifically ultraviolet B (UVB, 290-320 nm). Indoor tanning, fair-skinned complexion, prior radiation exposure and inherited genetic conditions such as nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome or Basex's syndrome are other important risks factors.

What's UV light? Learn more >>

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How can I protect myself from developing a basal cell carcinoma? The first step in protecting yourself from basal cell carcinoma begins with you. The key to preventative therapy is sun protection. Sun protection has three components:

  1. Sun avoidance during peak sun times from 10am to 3pm.
  2. Sun protective clothing (long sleeve shirts, long pants, hats with broad brims, and sunglasses.
  3. Daily Sunblock with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) = 30

Examine your skin once a month for any suspicious changes. The single most important feature that may signal the presence of a skin cancer is a new, changing, enlarging skin growth that persists. Sores that won't heal may also indicate cancerous or precancerous conditions of the skin that need attention. Early treatment is critical.

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What should I do if I suspect I have a basal cell carcinoma? Contact your primary care physician or a local dermatologist so they may examine the skin lesion that you are concerned with. If your doctor suspects that the lesion may be cancerous, he/she might perform a skin biopsy. If the diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma is confirmed, treatment often involves outpatient surgery. Contact your dermatologist to discuss the full range of treatment options.

What should I do if I have a history basal cell carcinoma?
Once you've had one basal cell carcinoma, you are at higher risk for developing additional basal cell carcinomas in the future. You are also at risk for developing other types of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Most patients with a history of basal cell carcinoma should see their dermatologist for a full skin evaluation at least once a year. In some cases, the dermatologist may recommend more frequent skin examinations.

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Images (click on an image for a larger view)

Basal Cell Carcinoma
Translucent pearly pink papule near the right eye.
  basal cell carcinoma

Infiltrative Basal Cell Carcinoma
This tumor has the characteristic translucent, pearly quality with superficial blood vessels. Notice its depressed, almost scar-like appearance, commonly seen in the infiltrative subtype of basal cell carcinomas.
  basal cell carcinoma


Basal Cell Carcinoma

Microscopic view of superficial basal cell carcinoma

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Suggested Articles

Rubin AI, Chen EH, Ratner D, "Basal-cell carcinoma." N Engl J Med. 2005 Nov 24;353(21):2262-9. Rubin AI, Chen EH, Ratner D, "Basal-cell carcinoma." N Engl J Med. 2005 Nov 24;353(21):2262-9.

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Updated: September 15, 2008
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.
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