Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written for the health care professional.

* This is the Professional Version. *

Basal Cell Carcinoma

(Rodent Ulcer)

by Gregory L. Wells, MD

Basal cell carcinoma is a superficial, slowly growing papule or nodule that derives from certain epidermal cells. Basal cell carcinomas arise from keratinocytes near the basal layer and can be referred to as basaloid keratinocytes. Metastasis is rare, but local growth can be highly destructive. Diagnosis is by biopsy. Treatment depends on the tumor’s characteristics and may involve curettage and electrodesiccation, surgical excision, cryosurgery, topical chemotherapy, or, occasionally, radiation therapy or drug therapy.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, with > 2.8 million new cases yearly in the US. It is most common among fair-skinned people with a history of sun exposure and is very rare in darkly pigmented people.

Symptoms and Signs

The clinical manifestations and biologic behavior of basal cell carcinomas are highly variable. They may appear as

  • Small, shiny, firm, almost translucent to pink nodules with telangiectases

  • Ulcerated, crusted papules or nodules

  • Flat, scarlike, indurated plaques (sometimes morphea-like cancers with vague borders)

  • Red, marginated, thin papules or plaques that are difficult to differentiate from psoriasis or localized dermatitis

Most commonly, the carcinoma begins as a shiny papule, enlarges slowly, and, after a few months or years, shows a shiny, pearly border with prominent engorged vessels (telangiectases) on the surface and a central dell or ulcer. Recurrent crusting or bleeding is not unusual. Commonly, the carcinomas may alternately crust and heal, which may unjustifiably decrease patients' and physicians' concern about the importance of the lesion.


  • Biopsy

Diagnosis is by biopsy and histologic examination.


Basal cell carcinomas rarely metastasize but may invade healthy tissues. Rarely, patients die because the carcinoma invades or impinges on underlying vital structures or orifices (eg, eyes, ears, mouth, bone, dura mater).

Almost 25% of patients with a history of basal cell carcinoma develop a new basal cell cancer within 5 yr of the original carcinoma. Consequently, patients with a history of basal cell carcinoma should be seen annually for a skin examination.


  • Usually with local methods

Treatment should be done by a specialist.

The clinical appearance, size, site, and histologic subtype determine choice of treatment—curettage and electrodesiccation, surgical excision, cryosurgery, topical chemotherapy (imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil) and photodynamic therapy, or, occasionally, radiation therapy.

Recurrent or incompletely treated cancers, large cancers, cancers at recurrence-prone sites (eg, head and neck), and morphea-like cancers with vague borders are often treated with Mohs microscopically controlled surgery, in which tissue borders are progressively excised until specimens are tumor-free (as determined by microscopic examination during surgery).

If patients have metastatic or locally advanced disease and are not candidates for surgery or radiation therapy (eg, because lesions are large, recurrent, or metastatic), vismodegib is now available. Vismodegib inhibits the hedgehog pathway (a pathway that is mutated in most patients with basal cell carcinoma).


Because basal cell carcinoma seems to be related to ultraviolet (UV) exposure, a number of measures are recommended to limit exposure.

  • Sun avoidance: Seeking shade, minimizing outdoor activities between 10 am and 4 pm (when sun's rays are strongest), and avoiding sunbathing and the use of tanning beds

  • Use of protective clothing: Long-sleeved shirts, pants, and broad-brimmed hats

  • Use of sunscreen: At least sun protection factor (SPF) 30 with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection, used as directed (ie, reapplied every 2 h and after swimming or sweating); should not be used to prolong sun exposure

Key Points

  • Basal cell carcinomas, the most common skin cancers, are particularly common among fair-skinned, sun-exposed people.

  • Consider the diagnosis with typical lesions (eg, shiny, slowly enlarging papule, often with a shiny, pearly border) and lesions that alternately crust and heal.

  • Refer patients to specialists for treatment, usually by locally destructive methods.

Resources In This Article

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Drug Name
    Select Brand Names

* This is a professional Version *